Catherine Wagner is reigning individual champ.
Wisconsin-Eau Claire

DESTIN, Fla. -- What appeared to be an alligator challenged a trio at Baytowne Golf Club’s No. 6 hole on Tuesday, halting the advance of Wisconsin-Eau Claire’s Catherine Wagner.

“I thought it was real,” she said of what turned out to be a garden ornament.

Her playing partners, Whitworth’s Emily Guthrie and St. Thomas (Minn.)’s Doyle O’Brien, were undeterred. 

“I was, ‘Oh my god, I finally saw one,’” Wagner said of the gator. “And they’re like, ‘It’s fake.’ I got excited, though.”

The reigning Division III women’s individual champion played on despite the distraction. She did wade among scoring alligators, posting an 8-over-par 80 in Tuesday’s opening round of the 2013 NCAA DIII Women’s Golf Championship.

Hosted by Methodist at Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort, and in conjunction with the DIII men’s tournament, the women are playing all four championship rounds on the Baytowne course, which means Wagner again will encounter the No. 6 alligator.

She hopes, after Tuesday’s less-than-pleasing 80, that she’s finished with scoring alligators.

“I got off to a little shaky start, I guess,” Wagner said. “The nerves were kind of flying. I quadrupled the first hole. Not the best start, but I grinded back all day and finished with an 80. Not terrible, but I can definitely go lower on this course.”

She did by one stroke on Wednesday, shooting a 79 during a morning round and ending the day in a seven-way tie for 20th. It leaves her with catch-up work during Thursday’s and Friday’s final two rounds.

“She played well last year and she played well [Tuesday] minus two holes, really,” UW-Eau Claire head coach Meghan Sobatta said. “She made birdies, almost made an eagle. She’s got the shots, she’s got the game. It’s there. Now we just gotta get rid of those two holes.”

Wagner, a senior who graduates in December, won the DIII title by one stroke last year. Her team finished third overall behind second-place DePauw and reigning national champion Methodist, but this year, she’s playing without teammates. UW-Eau Claire didn’t receive a 2013 NCAA bid.

Five other players whose teams didn’t receive bids are also competing for the individual title; they, including Wagner, are paired together in threesomes.

Sobotta, a three-time All-American and fourth-place finisher in the 2008 individual championship, is Wagner’s sole accompaniment this week.

“Very different,” Sobotta said of coaching one player. “I just kind of let her do her own thing. If she needs me, she calls me over — just kind of there to reassure on club selections and aiming points. She hasn’t kicked me out yet.”

Wagner says Tuesday’s nerves were to be expected.

“I definitely feel like there’s more pressure on me this time around than there was last time,” she said. “I finished ninth the year before I won it. There wasn’t really any pressure there, just pressure to do better. But it’s like, now I’ve won it, and I obviously want to win it again.”

Pressure isn’t strange to Wagner, also a three-time All-American and the 2010 Rookie of the Year. A stellar high-school career — she excelled in tennis, hockey and golf at Austin (Minn.) High School — prepared her for college.

Sobotta says Wagner’s accomplishments come from, “practice and making the jump from high school to college and focusing and taking it to the next level, which she has.”

This week’s NCAA tournament likely is Wagner’s swan song. A marketing major, she will job hunting following graduation.

“I’ll continue playing golf, but probably not competitively at this point,” she said.

Thus, the further motivation to trump scoring alligators.

“I do but I don’t,” Wagner said of considering her defending-champion status. “It’s kind of hard not to think about it, but I feel like it’s best for me that I don’t think about it. Just go out and do better than last year, not necessarily finish-wise and score-wise.”