Sun. May 19th, 2024

Birdie season: UNCW blitzkrieg takes Seahawks right to the top of NGI leaderboard before field catches up

By admin May11,2024

There may be no bigger confidence boost than 15 team birdies in the opening fives holes of a postseason tournament. That was the case for the University of North Carolina-Wilmington in Friday’s first round of the 2024 Women’s National Golf Invitational.

Starting on the back nine, UNCW’s five starters blistered their opening holes at Ak-Chin Southern Dunes in Maricopa, Arizona. That stretch included only two bogeys. Head coach Cindy Ho felt like it was a little bit of uncharted territory, but she watched proudly as her team continued to go low. The Seahawks capitalized on those short opening holes with dialed-in wedges. Players had paid attention during the practice round, noting where first-round pins would be and they came out prepared.

A handful of holes in, the challenge came in controlling the pace. Ho thinks her players might have gotten a little bit aggressive – perhaps giving birdie putts a little too much speed, in some cases, as the momentum grew and then missing the comebackers. That contributed to a few bigger numbers that brought UNCW back to the field.

Scores: Golfweek National Golf Invitational | Photos from 2024 NGI

“For us, we’re not a team that goes deep that often so part of it was it happened so fast – we always talk about being in our comfort zone, but you can be in your comfort zone by being over par too fast and being under par too fast because you’re trying to learn how to handle the situation,” she said.

Starting at No. 15, the birdies ebbed and a few bogeys began to stack up. UNCW logged a double and a triple on the par-4 18th before making the turn. After being double-digits under par at one point early in the day, UNCW closed the first round at 1 over, one shot ahead of Rutgers.

Santa Clara is third at 5 over and Chattanooga is fourth at 8 over. Chattanooga’s Violeta Fernandez leads the individual race after a 3-under 69.

Ak-Chin Southern Dunes is a fast golf course. There often isn’t a lot of depth to the greens and that puts a premium on decision making. Ho has preached commitment.

“I think we’re learning the golf course right now and just trying to plan the best we can,” Ho said. “We don’t want to play too conservatively, you know you probably need to make some birdies out here. It’s just trying to figure out, let’s not put ourselves where we make too many bogeys or double bogeys. But you can’t start laying up with a 9-iron.”

UNCW won its first start out of the gate this past fall at the Golfweek Fall Challenge in Pawley’s Island, South Carolina, and Ho spoke that week of a close group. The Seahawks went on to navigate a demanding schedule, full of head-to-heads against Power 5 teams, and finished tied for second at the CAA Conference Championship.

Ho, a well-respected coach who has been at the helm in Wilmington for more than two decades, last took a team to the postseason in 2019 when the Seahawks earned an Automatic Qualifying spot into NCAA Regionals by winning the CAA title.

After late-spring play was canceled because of COVID in 2020, UNCW was knocked out of a second consecutive chance at the postseason in 2021 when two players tested positive for COVID.

Fast forward to this spring, and UNCW is making its NGI debut, albeit without a couple of its usual starters from this season. Nicole Adam, a transfer from North Carolina, stayed behind to take part in UNCW’s graduation ceremony, having missed her high school graduation in the spring of 2020 because of COVID. (Mallory Fobes, now a fifth-year senior, decided to travel with the team and skip graduation). Malu Brinker, from Germany, is missing from the lineup due to a back injury.

Credit to the veteran coach Ho for recognizing that the NGI could be the perfect opportunity to begin transitioning to what next year’s Seahawk lineup will look like by getting some new players into the fold.

“Here’s the thing: To me I felt like this was the perfect time to move everybody up,” she said.

“What a great experience for them to play in a championship, play for the team and then everyone gets some more experience.”

A year ago, Penn State won the inaugural NGI without its top player, Mathilde Delavallade, in the lineup because she had been invited to an NCAA Regional and thus was prohibited from teeing it up in the NGI. That’s not lost on Ho.

“I think it was a no-brainer for us as long as we had people who were OK making the trip,” she said of this new postseason opportunity. “These guys are all hungry and they’re excited so let’s go out there and compete best you can.”

And as they demonstrated on Friday, the Seahawks’ best would be a lot for any team to handle.

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