After Season Clouded with Adversity, Bright Future Shines Ahead for UK Women's Golf
All good things must come to an end. Or so the saying goes.
The Kentucky women’s golf team’s historic run of NCAA regional appearances came to an end at five straight appearances earlier this week when the Wildcats were officially left out of the 2016 field.
While disappointing, the situation is far from dire for head coach Golda Johansson Borst’s program. In reality, plenty of good things appear to be on the horizon, if not already here.
On paper, it’s easy to see and point to the Wildcats’ lack of a postseason this year. Inside the team, however, the coaches and the players know what they went up against this season and how much they improved as the season progressed. No matter how much they tried to dismiss it, the Wildcats were always rolling a 10-ton ball uphill in the form of three season-ending injuries.
UK had a core of players returning from its strong end to the 2014-15 season that culminated with Isabelle Johansson making the NCAA Championships, but in reality the Wildcats were without two veterans and a promising young freshman before they ever teed up a ball.
Gone were the services of senior Sarah Harris, who had appeared in 28 events in his first three seasons at UK. Ale Walker and her 17-event experience were on the shelf for the year. Even Zoe Collins, who was expected to come in and contribute as a freshman, was injured and ruled out for the remainder of the year.
And with that, it almost felt like the Wildcats never stood a chance. Not that they ever approached it with that mentality.
With little depth, just one healthy senior and a boatload of inexperience, Borst and her team chose to focus on getting better and decided to chase their goals anyway. No matter how much adversity they faced, making excuses or acknowledging the obvious just seemed like a waste of time.
And improve the Wildcats did in 2015-16. With each tournament, with each weekend and specifically with each player, there was progress as the season wore on.
In two of the last five tournaments, the Wildcats placed fifth in fields considered to be among the best in the country – at the UCF Challenge in February and the Bryan National Collegiate in early April.
Johansson, after becoming the first Wildcat to qualify for the NCAA Championships since Heather Kraus in 1998, built off her late-season run in 2015 by becoming the most consistent player on UK’s roster as a sophomore. With a team-best 76.0 scoring average, the Swede finished in the top 50 a team-high six times, including 11th place at the UCF Challenge.
Sophomore Grace Rose was just behind Johansson with a 77.0 scoring average. Her potential was clear in 2015-16 with a team-best two top-20 finishes. She also showed the ability to go low with a 5-under 67 on the final day of the Landfall Tradition.
Perhaps the most encouraging sign for the future came in the form of the late-season development of freshman Anna Hack. The coaching staff always believed she had the potential to be one of the team’s best when they recruited her out of Paducah, Ky., but there were questions as to how she would handle the tougher college competition and some of the best courses in the country.
After feeling her way through the fall season, Hack answered in a big way down the stretch. She finished in the top 40 in her final three tournaments, including two top-25 finishes and a 14th-place result at the LSU Tiger Golf Classic in March. Hack became a bit of a birdie machine in the final months. Also, as she became more consistent on the greens, so too did her scores, as 15 of her final 17 rounds were in the 70s.
Junior Jordan Chael was a big lift after transferring from Nebraska. She tied for 10th in her UK debut at the Minnesota Invitational in September and tied for 26th in the spring at the Bryan National Collegiate.
Chael will be back in 2016-17, as will Johansson, Rose, Hack, veteran Megan Kinney, who recorded a hole-in-one in the fall, and freshman Claire Carlin, who joined the team in January.
As a matter of fact, of the 147 rounds played during the 2015-16 season, 121 were played by Wildcats who will return next season. Couple that with the returns of the aforementioned Walker and Collins, and UK looks to be back on solid footing again. Add in highly touted signees Josephine Chang and Sarah Shipley, and suddenly the future looks really bright.
Chang and Shipley have both been, at various times, ranked in Golfweek’s top 50 rankings for the 2016 class. Both will join UK in the fall as two of the most decorated high school golfers the Wildcats have had in some time.
The one piece the Wildcats won’t return next season that made an impact in 2015-16 is departing senior Cylia Damerau. Damerau was a full-time contributor at Kentucky, playing in 36 events with 107 rounds in her four-year career.
Damerau’s successful UK career included five top-20 finishes, including two in the Southeastern Conference Championship and a fourth-place finish at the UCF Challenge in 2016. Her 15 career rounds of even par or better are tied for the third most in program history since 1987.
Borst will have to figure out a way to replace Damerau’s leadership and consistency, but roster turnover from one year to the next is an annual challenge for any college program. To only lose a small amount and return the type of experience the Wildcats gained this season will be an invaluable asset when UK returns to the course in 2016-17.
There’s never any way of telling when new adversity will strike, but with the arsenal Kentucky returns next season and the battles they went through the season, good things are just getting started.