COLUMBUS, Ohio (UK Athletics) – The Kentucky women’s golf team is headed to the NCAA Championships for the first time since 1992.
The Wildcats clinched a spot in the national championship event with a fourth-place finish at the NCAA Columbus Regional on Wednesday. Kentucky finished the job it has had its sights set on for two seasons with a 2-under-par 290 in the final round. The strong finish held off a slew of challengers all vying for the final tickets to nationals.
UK finished with a three-day total of 19-over par to lock up the sixth NCAA Championships berth in program history but the first in 29 years.
Now the Wildcats will head west to Scottsdale, Arizona, for an opportunity they have waited for since the postseason was canceled a season ago because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The remaining 24 teams (six teams from each of the four regionals) will compete May 21-26 at Grayhawk Golf Club for a chance at the national title.
“I’m just unbelievably proud,” UK head coach Golda Borst said. “There are not a lot of other words that I can use than those. They did this. They took ownership. This is what they wanted to do when we started the season. We talk about wanting to win a national championship, and to do that we have to get through regionals first. … To see them come through here and handle this as well as they did – handle the nerves, handle some of the anxiety and execute – is huge. They are capable of so much.”
Kentucky exhibited a championship sprit throughout the week, but especially Wednesday when the moments were at their tensest.
Starting the day in sixth place, the Wildcats raced out of the gates with a pair of birdies from sophomore Jensen Castle and an eagle on the par-5 fourth hole by freshman Laney Frye. Midway through the front nine, UK had moved as high as fourth place, but the wind kicked up – as it did all week when the afternoon rolled around – and things got tough.
At that point forward, it was essentially a six-team battle for four spots between UK, Michigan, Arizona State, Kent State, Vanderbilt and Oklahoma. The teams jockeyed for position well into the day, and at one point there was a three-way tie – Kentucky included – for the all-important sixth-place position with about an hour left in the round. Meanwhile Vanderbilt and Oklahoma were about to post scores and wait in the clubhouse just a few shots behind on the scoreboard to see if the field would come back to them.
The Wildcats weren’t having any of that and flexed their muscles.
UK separated itself with a trio of three birdies in a matter of minutes. Senior Rikke Svejgård Nielsen birdied the par-4 15th, sophomore María Villanueva Aperribay followed moments later with the same thing, and up ahead Castle knocked her approach shot on the par-4 16th hole to about a foot of the hole and tapped in for birdie.
Kentucky closed strong to finish at 19-over par and even moved past Michigan for fourth place.
“Overall, the round, I think we started off pretty solid,” Borst said. “Laney’s 3-wood on four was just so good. She made that eagle putt and I knew that was going to build momentum. I knew at some point that we would stumble a little bit because that always happens in golf. I told (assistant coach) Brian (May), ‘We’re just going to see how they respond when that happens.’ They did what they always do when things get tough: They get tougher.”
Individually, Villanueva Aperribay and Svejgård Nielsen tied for fifth place with three-day totals of 1-over par. Svejgård Nielsen was the top UK performer on Wednesday and carded a 2-under-par 70 in the critical final round for her third top-20 finish in her last four events.
Two of Kentucky’s top players all season long, Castle and Frye, came through Wednesday when they were needed the most despite some ups and downs on the first two days. Frye, UK’s 2020-21 season stroke leader and a Southeastern Conference All-Freshman Team selection, fired a 73 in the final round. She tied for 24th at 7-over par. Castle, who just last week qualified for the U.S. Women’s Open, battled back from an 80 on Tuesday for a 74 on Wednesday. She tied for 45th at 13-over par.
Sophomore Marissa Wenzler tied for 63rd with a total score of 15-over par.
But this week was about a collective effort and a story two years in the making.
Kentucky had dreams of being in this position a year ago after a breakthrough 2019-20 campaign. That UK team set a number of program records – including the best scoring average in school history – and was a lock for the 2020 postseason, but the COVID-19 pandemic robbed the Wildcats of an opportunity to see how far they could go.
Kentucky returned nearly every key piece from that team this season with high hopes and expectations. When the Wildcats failed to match last season’s success from a scoring average standpoint – and against a tougher schedule – they held steady and played their best golf down the stretch, culminating with Wednesday’s defining breakthrough.
“We want to break glass ceilings,” Borst said. “We shattered one today and I’m pumped about that. It’s just part of the process of what we are trying to build. We want to be a national championship contender. We want to win conference championships. The first step is to get through regionals. Any coach will tell you that this is harder than the national championships because there is just so much pressure to get in those top six spots. This builds really great momentum for us.
“This group is such a great team. It’s not just the five that are here; it’s all nine of them. They all come together and they fight really hard and they work hard in practice and they push each other. It’s another building block.”
The NCAA Championships will feature both stroke and match play. Teams will first compete in three 18-hole rounds of stroke-play competition. Following the third round, the field will be cut to the top 15 teams and top nine individuals not on an advancing team.
From the fourth round, the top eight teams from the 72-hole total scores will move on to the match-play bracket, which will be seeded in order of finish in stroke play. An individual champion will also be crowned after stroke play.
A knockout match-play competition will then take place to determine the team national champion.
UK’s best national finish was fifth place at its inaugural NCAA Championships appearance in 1986. The Wildcats competed in the NCAA Championships five times in a seven-season span from 1986 to 1992 under then-head coach Bettie Lou Evans, but UK has not been back since (the format to qualify then was different than it is now).
The Wildcats came close to making it in 2015 at South Bend Regional when UK finished in seventh place, just one spot outside the cut. Leonie Bettel qualified as an individual in 2018.
Showcasing the SEC’s season-long strength, No. 18 Georgia, the third league team in the Columbus Regional, finished atop the leaderboard at 1-over par. The Bulldogs’ Jenny Bay won the individual title at 4-under par.