ANGOLA, Ind. – The ball stuck to the ninth green after it fell from the crisp, blue Indiana sky. The deep thump of Earth embracing plastic cut through the tense silence and prompted roars from dozens of onlookers lingering in the shade. St. Olaf junior Molly Erickson’s approach shot had found its target to the delight of her four teammates who’d just finished their round on the same hole. Coaches, parents and other teams who were waiting for their final players to finish cheered in approval too.
Two putts later, Erickson and her group had finished the third round of this week’s NCAA Championship. Their day complete, the teams, parents and coaches who had been watching so intently scampered up the hill that hides the ninth green from the rest of the course.
But six more approach shots had yet to be fired at that green.
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When those landed, there was no cacophony of claps and shouts. Those six players, split into the day’s final two groups, were the lone individual invitees to this year’s NCAA Championship. The other 95 golfers navigating Indiana’s Zollner Golf Course belong to the 19 teams that qualified for the tournament. Their shots were celebrated all week, but each of the lone six had only one coach who walked the course with them and, perhaps, a parent that waited by the final green. Any cheers were far from deafening.
“I feel so lonely,” Texas-Tyler senior Danica Weddle, one of the six, said. “I’d rather have my team here, I really would. It’s just a lot more fun. You have the girls to hang out with. They’re like your second family.”
Though golf is a game built around individualism, this is the first competition Weddle has played alone. Most of the sport occurs between a golfer’s ears amid silent strolls between strokes. But for college golfers being part of a team defines them. Success isn’t measured by those silent moments, rather five players’ collective triumph. But this week, six golfers — Weddle, Whitworth junior Emily Guthrie, Central senior Sarah Paulson, Wisconsin-Stevens Point sophomore Mary Welch, Mount Union senior Mary Snode and Middlebury senior Flora Weeks — are left alone with their thoughts. Nonetheless, each finished Thursday’s third round in the tournament’s top-20.
Typically, a college golf coach bounces between five golfers playing at once, paying little attention to top players and focusing on younger ones. Weddle, for instance, regularly plays with four freshmen, so her coach, Grant Spencer, rarely checks in with her during a round. This week, though, he’s walking every single step of the hilly course with her. While she said she prefers thinking her shots through on her own, she has turned to him for advice on club selection given the course’s undulating terrain. She is, after all, accustomed to playing in the Texas plains.
“He’s like ‘What do you want me to do? Do I stay with you? Do I read your putts?’” Weddle said. “And I say, ‘Just go away until I need you.’ ”
Snode, who finished the third round tied for 9th place, is also unaccustomed to her coach’s constant presence. But they’ve spent the week balancing a delicate give and take. Her coach, Dan MacDuffie, strives not to be overbearing while simultaneously remaining aware his player’s needs.
“Mary and I have a good relationship,” MacDuffie said. “I feel we both have a good sense of each other – when she decides to do things on her own, when I need to be there a little bit more – and we just kind of figure it out.”
In a way, the six women brought to Zollner to compete as individuals have formed their own team. When Snode nearly hooked a shot out of bounds in the third round, Paulson offered words of encouragement, saying she was relieved that her opponent didn’t need to take a penalty.
“They have your back,” Snode said. “Even though this is a competition, we can still make friends out here.”
Guthrie nailed a hole-in-one on the 135-yard sixth hole on Thursday. Her Whitworth teammates were 1,960 miles away and couldn’t witness their teammate’s biggest moment in collegiate golf, but her newfound friends cheered her on. Her triumph wasn’t lost to obscurity; she was able to relish it with the competitors she’d grown close to during the week.
“It was awesome having Emily in our group,” Weddle said. “I had the goosebumps for her.”
Weddle was part of the Texas-Tyler team that reached the NCAA Championship last year. Though she was distraught that her team, ranked 14th in Division III by the National Golf Coaches Association, missed the tournament this year, she’s relishing her final moments playing college golf, even if her final 18-hole walk is a solitary one.
“As a senior going to nationals is pretty awesome,” she said. “But I’d love to have my team here.”
Snode’s friend and teammate, freshman Lexi Scala, made the 240-mile trek to offer support. She watched Snode’s approach to the ninth green after the throng of onlookers disappeared over that hill, and offered a few soft claps when it settled on the green. The rest of Snode’s teammates, who collectively fell 10 strokes shy of qualifying for the NCAA Championship, are there with her in spirit.
“They’ve Tweeted me, they’ve Facebooked me and texted me letting me know that they’re supporting me and that they’re watching at home,” Snode said. “It’s great that I still have their support from far away.”