In 2022, Northwestern women’s golf missed out on a ticket to the NCAA Championship by a playoff tiebreaker. One year later, it was the Wildcats who narrowly made it out of the Palm Beach Regional. Although it was eliminated in the first stage of nationals last Sunday, NU tied for third at its regional showdown to punch its first ticket to Scottsdale, Arizona since 2019.
Heading into the Palm Beach Regional, the No. 15 ‘Cats were ranked as the third-best team in the 12-school field, behind No. 3 LSU and No. 10 Texas. With five bids for NCAAs at stake, Northwestern was a favorite to go through.
After the first round, though, that seemed to be anything but a certainty. No. 34 Michigan State surprisingly got off to a fast start, taking the match by the reins by shooting 285 (or an average of 71.25) as a team. Northwestern, on the other hand, was 15 strokes back in eighth. Grad student Kelly Sim started well with a 70 — tied for the second-best individual mark in the entire field — but everyone else remained in the middle of the pack.
It didn’t help that Lauryn Nguyen, who made the All-Big Ten first team, shot 13-over. A few early double bogeys kept her from placing in the team’s top four and scoring, which left NU in a pack of about 10 teams fighting for the four bids behind MSU heading into the second day.
That was where Northwestern made a move of its own. It blew everyone out of the water with a 284 for the round, climbing within three strokes of the Spartans and five clear of the elimination cutoff. Sim, Irene Kim, Jieni Li and Dianna Lee all shot at par or under in a monumental team performance. While it didn’t clinch the ticket to Scottsdale, it did ease the pressure for NU heading into the final round. For a team that endured its share of Sunday afternoon woes last year, this confidence boost was significant.
That didn’t keep the other squads below the ‘Cats from making things interesting. Northwestern shot solidly, but not as well as it had the day prior. Sim, who entered the final round as the second-place individual, fell to ninth with a 77. She failed to score, and although Kim closed strong with a 70, that opened the door for LSU and Arkansas to try and snag the final two bids behind Michigan State, Duke and Texas.
The Tigers, the favorites to win at Palm Beach, rebounded from a tough first two rounds with a 285 to salvage their season. The bigger scare was the emergence of the Razorbacks, who had two golfers shoot -3, tied for the best single-day mark of the entire tournament, in the same round. Ultimately, though, their comeback effort fell short. Arkansas’s 880 fell just two strokes short of overtaking NU, which tied Texas for third. Kim had tied for sixth overall, and the ‘Cats were heading back to their first NCAA Championship in four years.
The 30-team Scottsdale field featured 18 top-25 squads, but Northwestern was still favored to make it past the first stage of stroke play among the top 15 teams. To do so, the ‘Cats would have to maintain that position through three rounds to qualify for the extra day. If they managed to place themselves in the top eight at the conclusion of the fourth round, then they would have a chance to win the national title in match play.
Ultimately, Emily Fletcher’s group fell well short of advancing, as it finished the first three rounds tied for 22nd. Once again, a slow start put Northwestern in a precarious position, as no one shot better than +3 in the first round. That placed the ‘Cats in third-to-last and 10 strokes behind the first cutoff.
As it did at Palm Beach, the team improved mightily in the second round. Nguyen, Li and Sim all shot an even par. But while that bettered Northwestern’s score, it didn’t put a dent into the deficit. The ‘Cats were still in 27th, far behind 15th-place Duke. They took advantage of a tough third round for the majority of the field to jump up to 22nd, but their 892 overall score left them 11 strokes back of SMU and ended their season.
The end result may have been somewhat disappointing, but this marked the end of an unquestionably successful season for Northwestern. After qualifying for NCAAs seven years in a row up to 2019, it went three seasons without getting to that stage. Plus, no one other than Sim had that level of postseason experience in Evanston. With three of the five members of NU’s NCAA title lineup set to return, there’s a good chance for the ‘Cats to replicate this success in the immediate future.