Depth. It’s on every coach’s wish list. Hana Lee remembers the days when the lineup at Northwestern was rubber-stamped. Competition was something reserved for tournament weeks.
This year, however, the senior from Wilson, Calif., had to fight hard for the fifth spot in NCAA regional action. After a couple of dozen common competitive rounds, Lee and junior Kaitlin Park had taken the exact same number of strokes.
Head coach Emily Fletcher opted for a 36-hole qualifier between the two for the final spot, and Lee won by one. She then went to Raleigh and led the team to a second-place finish at NCAA regionals, tying for ninth as an individual.
And that’s what makes Northwestern, the reigning Big Ten champion, so dangerous. The Wildcats’ fifth player could finish first, making the Wildcats a threat throughout the lineup when it comes to match play at the NCAA Championship, to be played May 22-27 at Concession Golf Club in Bradenton, Fla.
Another example: Sarah Cho, a freshman who played as an individual the first three tournaments of the year, came on strong in the spring and won the Big Ten Championship.
“One of the caveats will be who someone else thinks on paper is my fifth player might not be my fifth player at all,” Fletcher said. “We’ve got an interesting deck of cards, the five players that we’re holding.”
For the first time in women’s NCAA history, match play will determine the national champion. The first order of business for Northwestern, No. 14 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings, is to finish among the top eight after four rounds of stroke play and advance to match play.
At regionals, Northwestern displayed a gutsiness that could serve it well at nationals. After opening in 11th place, the Wildcats dug deep to climb into second, carding four birdies over the final two holes.
“There is a maturity and a confidence that they’ve really developed and grabbed ahold of over the last 12 to 18 months,” Fletcher said.
Lee said the environment at Northwestern has “changed dramatically” since her freshman year. Practices have become more intense as the internal competition ratchets up.
“It’s really fun to be a part of that, and it motivates me personally as a player,” she said.
To get their players used to beating one another (in a friendly way), the coaches purchased a team pingpong table. There’s a difference in asking a player to go out and ambiguously “do her best” and asking a player to go head-to-head with someone and clinch a point.
The strategy and emotions are different.
In addition to the pingpong, coaches debuted the Willie Cup two years ago. Named after “Willie the Wildcat,” Northwestern’s mascot, the school’s men’s and women’s teams are drafted together each fall to form two teams (four men and four women on each). They play best-ball and singles matches, with men and women squaring off against one another.
“They’ve embraced it and have loved it,” said Fletcher, who also noted that she and men’s coach David Inglis are undefeated against her assistant, Beth Miller, and director of golf Pat Goss.
The first time Northwestern’s women qualified for an NCAA championship was in 2000. The Wildcats finished last. Fletcher arrived in 2008-09 and guided Northwestern to its second NCAA appearance in ’13, when they finished 15th. They returned in 2014 and tied for 15th.
What was once a milestone has now become an expectation.
Meet the ’Cats. Fletcher takes us through her starting lineup (with Golfweek/Sagarin ranking):
Hana Lee, senior (110): “She’s got something to prove. She’s a very talented player, and she brought a sense of resolve to regionals. Wants to go out of here leaving a mark on our program.”
Suchaya “Cherrie” Tangkamolprasert, junior (70): “She’s a competitor. She sees every challenge as an opportunity to succeed.”
Kacie Komoto, sophomore (93): “Just a little machine. She just goes about her business out there and hits lots of fairways, lots of greens. Really steady.”
Hannah Kim, freshman (48): “She’s a very, very good ball-striker and a precision iron-player. Lots of opportunities for birdie.”
Sarah Cho, freshman (194): “She’ll fool you with her demeanor. She’s very chill, but she has tons of intensity. There’s a Tiger (Woods)-like mentality underneath her. She’s a bulldog.”