Kentucky women’s golf head coach Golda Borst has known for some time that the program would need a new identity with Isabelle Johansson, Grace Rose and Ale Walker – backbones of the program for the last several years – now gone.
But as to who would fill their voids and as to how well they could build on their success was a mystery. Would it be the two seniors, Leonie Bettel and Claire Carlin, taking ownership of the team? Could Sarah Shipley continue the positive momentum she manufactured in the spring? What about the three newcomers, Ryan Bender, Casey Ott and Rikke Svejgård Nielsen, who will have to play early and often?
After the first day of the 2018-19 season – a 36-hole grind that would test even the most experienced and talented golfers – Borst may have found the answers she was looking for: Perhaps it’s all of the above.
A mix of the talented youth and veteran leadership were on display during Kentucky’s first tournament action of the season, a two-round marathon at the Minnesota Invitational in Woodbury, Minnesota to tee off the season.
Freshmen Ryan Bender (tied for 13th) and Casey Ott (tied for 21st) showed they weren’t afraid of the collegiate stage while Bettel (tied for 13th) and Shipley (tied for 21st) look poised to build off their strong finishes to the 2017-18 season and solid summers.
With the all-around effort, UK sits in a tie for fourth place with Middle Tennessee State after rounds of 294 and 286 to start the new season. At 4-over par overall, the Wildcats are just 11 shots out of first place.
The 286 in the second round is Kentucky’s best round since shooting 285 in the final round of last season’s season opener, the Mercedes-Benz Collegiate Championship. Coincidentally, it’s also UK’s best 54-hole start since that same tournament.
“I’m very proud of the girls for us to battle like we did today,” Borst said. “We got off to a good start and then we kind of had some rough holes in the middle, but again we came up and finished really strong. I thought the second 18, the girls really continued to handle themselves well and finished strong.”
In an 84-player field, five UK players are in the top 25. That’s positioned the Wildcats to make a run at both the team and individual titles in Tuesday’s finale.
San Jose State leads the 15-team field at 7-under par. Lauren Cox (North Texas) and Natasha Andrea Oon (San Jose State) are atop the individual leaderboard.
The third and final round begins Tuesday at 10:15 a.m. ET from the Prestwick Golf Club in Woodbury, Minnesota. Live scoring will continue to be available at GolfStat.com.
The two freshmen in the lineup, Bender and Ott, wasted no time in previewing what the future could look like. Neither backed down from the step-up in competition with solid starts out of the gate. Bender had two birdies on her opening nine holes while Ott birdied two of her first three.
Bender shot a 74 in her first college round, but she didn’t rest on the success. In her afternoon round, she carded four birdies with just two bogeys for a second-round 70. The 70 is the best round by a freshman since Johansson’s 70 in the first round of the 2015 NCAA South Bend Regionals.
Overall, Bender sits in a tie for 13th place even par, just seven shots off the lead in her first collegiate tournament.
Ott isn’t far behind in a tie for 21st at 2-over par overall. Perhaps the most encouraging part of her first taste of college golf was the way she battled back from adversity. After opening with those two birdies in the first four holes, she was 6-over par over her next eight holes, including a triple bogey on No. 16 (she began her day on the back nine).
Rather than fold, Ott found a birdie late in her first round for a 75 before a rather stress-free 71 in the afternoon. Her first career score in red numbers included two birdies, just one bogey and the rest pars.
“You know there’s going to be nerves, you know there’s going to be some tightness with this first 36 holes, so I thought they handled that really well,” Borst said of the freshmen. “For them to both come back with under-par rounds in the second round today showed a lot of strength, a lot of resilience and really just a lot of discipline. And that’s what I want to see: that courage, commitment and discipline out of the girls.”
Meanwhile, the veterans who finished 2017-18 strong – Bettel and Shipley – just kept rolling along.
Bettel, who had a busy summer with the Austria National Team, was in midseason form with a tournament-opening 72, including three birdies. Her second nine was just as good – a 72 with a final-hole birdie to remain at even par overall and in a tie for 13th.
“I think she’s come a long way,” Borst said. “What she learned last year and then this summer with the Austria National Team, playing in some really big events on her own, really has helped her come into her own. I’m excited to see her come in with two solid rounds today. I know she can do a lot better. … She’s definitely going to be a leader for us.”
Shipley opened the 2018-19 season with a 73 and followed suit in the second round with another 73. She’s tied with Ott in 21st.
Also in the logjam at 21st is junior Josephine Chang, who is playing as an individual only. After a difficult sophomore season, Chang returned to her freshman form when he was consistently at or around even par. She was among the leaders after round one with an even-par 72 and finished the day at 2-over par overall.
“Jo is really battling and it’s really great to see her come back and play more steady,” Borst said. “She’s really been able to find herself on the golf course again and find that joy, so it’s good to see her getting back to hitting fairways and greens and making putts.”
After a slow start, Carlin rolled in three birdies on her final nine holes of the day to get to 12-over par overall, in 73rd place.
Near-perfect conditions are expected again Tuesday with plenty of sunshine and temperatures in the upper 70s at in Woodbury. The site of the tournament, Prestwick Golf Club, is playing at 6,479 yards, a par 72. With large undulating greens and strategically placed groves of mature trees, the course was recently named Course of the Year by the Midwest Golf Course Owners Association.
The full field consists of UK, host Minnesota, East Carolina, Kansas, Louisville, Middle Tennessee State, Missouri, North Texas, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Rutgers, San Francisco, San Jose State, South Dakota State and Virginia Tech.