The Kentucky women’s golf team couldn’t sustain the momentum it burst out of the 2018-19 gates with, but the Wildcats still capped a successful start to the season with a fifth-place finish and a stellar performance from senior Leonie Bettel at the Minnesota Invitational.
With Bettel carding all three of her rounds at even par or better, the Wildcats posted their first top-five finish since last season’s Clover Cup in March. UK posted three top-five showings all of last season.
Kentucky finished at 880 (16-over par overall), its best 54-hole mark since shooting an 865 at last season’s season opener, the Mercedes-Benz Collegiate Championship, where UK will head next week.
The Wildcats looked like they could beat that mark after entering the day at 4-over par, but the wind kicked up Tuesday at Prestwick Golf Club (6,479 yards, par 72) in Woodbury, Minnesota, and UK shot a 12-over-par 300 in the final round.
“It was a tougher test today,” UK head coach Golda Borst said. “I think we hung tough yesterday. Today was definitely harder. I believe some of the nerves got the best of us and some of the emotions got in our way and we just weren’t quite able to handle that today. Overall it’s (an) alright (result). I think we have a lot better golf in us, so I look forward to working on that and getting ready for next week.”
San Jose State, the only team in red numbers at 4-under par, went wire-to-wire for the title. Natasha Andrea Oon paced San Jose State with a score of 9-under par, running away from the competition with a six-stroke victory.
Kentucky’s Bettel wasn’t far behind with a score of 1-under par. After back-to-back rounds of 72 during Monday’s 36-hole marathon, she dipped into red numbers with a 1-under 71 Tuesday.
Bettel tied for sixth overall, tied for her best finish at UK (she’s transferred to Kentucky as a junior), and she just missed out on her best 54-hole total at Kentucky by one stroke with a 1-under-par 215.
“Anytime you’re a senior and you play well, that’s good,” Borst said. “For her, she can be an All-American. So for her to step up today and start with a tied-for-sixth finish puts herself in a good position for us to continue to challenge her to reach that goal. I think that’s something she’s very capable of.”
Bettel racked up four birdies in Tuesday’s finale, including three over a six-hole stretch on the back portion of her round. The top-10 finish is the fifth of her career.
Junior Sarah Shipley, who is expected to be one of the team’s leaders this season alongside Bettel, played well in her first tournament of the season by tying for 22nd. She fired a 3-over-par 75 Tuesday and finished at 5-over par overall, just missing out on her fourth career top-20 finish.
Freshmen Ryan Bender and Casey Ott wanted to notch their first top-20 finishes in their first college tournaments and had a chance to after marvelous debuts Monday. Bender was tied for 10th after recording a 70 in the second round, the best score by a freshman since Isabelle Johansson shot a 70 in the first round of the 2015 NCAA South Bend Regionals. Ott was tied for 21st after a 71 in the second round.
The freshmen couldn’t duplicate those performances in round three. Ott got off to a nice start Tuesday and was at 1-under par on the day through seven holes, but the back end of the back nine got the best of her as she fell to 8-over par for the tournament, tying for 40th overall. Bender, meanwhile, shot an 81 Tuesday to finish at 9-over par, tied for 42nd.
Senior Claire Carlin bounced back and contributed to Tuesday’s team total with a 76. Although she failed to record a birdie, she limited any damage to just four bogeys. She tied for 67th at 16-over par.
One of the most encouraging signs of the tournament was the play of junior Josephine Chang, who was playing as an individual only. The Wildcats could have used several of her scores this week as she carded her best 54-hole total (222) since the Clover Cup of her freshman season, in March 2017. She tied for 22nd – also her best finish since the 2017 Clover Cup – with scores of 72-74-76 (6-over par).
With the first tournament complete, the Wildcats will waste no time returning to action. After catching up with classes, UK is back to the course for practice and next week’s Mercedes-Benz Collegiate Championship in Knoxville, Tennessee. UK begins its 2018-19 fast and furious with three tournaments in a month’s span, including next month’s Bettie Lou Evans Invitational at the University Club.
“The girls are off Wednesday, we practice Thursday, Friday, we’ll practice on the road Saturday, and then we’re right back into a round on Sunday,” Borst said. “So it’s a quick turnaround, which is a good thing for us.
“There was really nothing to fret about today. The wind picked up and we just didn’t handle it the best. I think with all the different circumstances, we’ve got a lot to learn from today. There are a ton of things we can take moving forward to Knoxville, so I look forward to building on that and seeing if we can finish better next week.”