High hopes for women’s golf

Julian Reed

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The Whitman College Women’s Golf team, led by senior captain Kelly Sweeney, had high hopes coming into the 2014-2015 season. After a few weeks’ worth of tournaments, the team has already exceeded their expectations.

As of this week, the team has won two of their three competitive tournaments. They placed sixth in the O’Brien Invitational before winning the Pacific Fall Opener and the Whitworth Invitational.

Women’s Golf Coach Skip Molitor, in his 21st year at Whitman and seventh as the women’s golf coach, thinks the team can make Nationals this year. The goal is to win the Northwest Conference, which confers an AQ (automatic qualifier) to the national tournament.

“Our program is at a point where most years it’s a very realistic goal to contend and ideally bring home the trophy,” said Molitor.

Sweeney agreed but emphasized staying in the present.

“As a team, I really want us to go to Nationals, and I think that we have a very solid group of girls and that we’re all good players and we can learn a lot from each other,” said Sweeney. “In the past we’ve shot ourselves in the foot by being like, ‘Oh, Nationals is our main goal.’ It is our main goal, but our team responds well to having little goals along the way for each tournament.”

Photo by Halley McCormick.

Photo by Halley McCormick.

The team of five is dealing with the loss of three seniors from last year’s team: Elaine Whaley, Catelyn Webber and Katie Zajicek.

“We had a real strong senior class last year. We had three players who had very accomplished careers,” said Molitor. “Both Katie and Catelyn won several tournaments and were nationally ranked in terms of their stroke average.”

Sweeney has helped compensate for the losses with her own strong play. She paced the field at both Whitworth and Pacific, and she set a school single-round record, previously held by Zajicek, with a 71 to help Whitman win the Pacific Fall Opener. She did it mostly thanks to a scorching 5-under-par 31 on the front nine (played second at the tournament). She was named Northwest Conference Student Athlete of the Week for the performance.

“[On] the second nine everything just kind of came into place and I just wasn’t really thinking about anything. I was just stroking the ball and everything just fell into place,” said Sweeney.

Molitor says that the team isn’t as deep as it was in years past, which makes health a concern. Sweeney is returning from a partially torn labrum which limited her to two of 12 matches in the spring season last year.

“She’s rehabbed well, and so far it looks like she’s going to be off to a pretty healthy start,” said Molitor.

Sweeney mentioned that she has had to change parts of her game due to lingering effects of the injury.

“I’m still battling it constantly just because there’s nothing they can do surgically right now,” said Sweeney. “I’m relying on different parts of my game that I haven’t had to rely on before because I don’t have the distance that I’m used to.”

The team features two first-years, Kendall Dunovant and Phoebe Nguyen. Nguyen has golfed well so far, breaking 80 twice at Pacific (79/79), but Dunovant has struggled at times in her first collegiate season.

“This season has been rough for me. My scores have not been as good as I would’ve hoped. At this point, it’s just about playing [at a] level that I know I can and not letting the mistakes I’ve made earlier in the season affect me,” she said.

Dunovant says Sweeney has been a big help easing the difficult transition to college level golf.

“Kelly is definitely a leader on the team. For me personally, she has been a constant source of encouragement. Even when I’m not happy with how I play, she is there to remind me to focus on the positive, and remember what I did do well,” said Dunovant.

While Molitor says that Sweeney is “very much” a leader for the younger players, Sweeney downplays the label.

“I think especially with a small team it’s not so much that there’s one distinct captain, but that we all kind of feed off each other. But it’s nice to have me and the two underclassmen that were here last year –– Alyssa and Lou –– all kind of leading together by example,” said Sweeney.

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