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Northwestern women’s golf stays connected despite geographic diversity

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Spring is supposed to be the championship season for Northwestern’s women’s golf program.

Back in early March, the Wildcats were focused on hitting their stride just before the most important stretch of their year-long season: extensive practice and a tournament in Arizona over spring break, followed by the Big Ten Championships in April and the NCAA Regionals in May.

To prepare, NU traveled to Hilton Head, S.C. to take part in the Darius Rucker Intercollegiate from March 6-8. Senior Brooke Riley, who notched the Cats’ best score in the tournament, said although COVID-19 had been a topic of discussion, no one had considered the possibility of the season being canceled.

“I heard some talk between our men’s team and their coach (about COVID-19),” she said. “I kind of was like, ‘Whoa, we might not go on Spring Break,’ I was thinking that would be the worst case scenario.”

Coach Emily Fletcher said that a highlight of the tournament was a concert hosted by Darius Rucker, the tournament’s namesake. But less than a week later, COVID-19’s rapid escalation caused the NCAA to cancel sports for the remainder of the spring season.

Suddenly, a team filled with expectations and excitement could not compete, and instead traveled their separate ways to self-isolate.

“Typically in golf, we keep our social distance for the most part,” she said. “Coming off just a week prior being at a concert with all of (the team), it was pretty shocking that all of a sudden (there was) no travel, no contact, and our players were heading home.”

Fletcher has had to adapt to virtual coaching, for which she says consistency is key. She said she has been in contact with each player “almost daily” through texts, calls and emails and has organized team Zoom calls every other week.

She added the one-on-one aspect of golf coaching lends itself to discussing specifics with players while they practice alone in quarantine.

While the Wildcats are not on the course together, sophomore Kelly Sim said that because the team has only eight members, she feels like they are “a really close family.” The family atmosphere helped translate to a TikTok the Cats created, featuring Northwestern golf legend Luke Donald. In the video, each member of the team juggles and passes a ball to one another, ending with a splash into the River Seine courtesy of junior Julia Tournaut, a Paris native.

The TikTok showcases a unique aspect of the team compared to other sports on campus. While the team only has eight members, they are located in six different time zones — four in the continental United States, plus France and China. Fletcher said the geographic diversity of the team makes remote coaching difficult.

“It’s a little bit challenging to get us all on a call at the same time, because days and nights are flipped,” she said.

With players scattered across the country and world, there has been a vast difference in each player’s ability to practice and work on her game while in quarantine. Riley, who lives in California but is quarantining with family in Texas, said that due to less intense social distancing rules, she has been able to golf consistently.

Like Riley, sophomore Jane Lu and freshman Rou Yin have been able to play at home in China. Fletcher said both players completed a 14-day quarantine away from home upon arriving, but now are playing golf “kind of as usual.”

In the COVID-19 hotspot of New Jersey, Sim has had a different experience, with golf on shutdown.

“I’ve been practicing at home, which is the best I can do,” she said. Sim had to be creative to be able to swing her clubs. She set up a pillow fort in her home which could withstand a shot from her driver.

Sim said New Jersey has eased restrictions on golfing the last two weeks, so she is now able to practice outside by herself, but with extreme caution.

While the Cats don’t know when they’ll be returning to the greens, much less to Evanston, Fletcher said she has been impressed with the team’s attitude during the course of the pandemic.

Sim has valued the time spent with family, saying the year-round college golf schedule leaves little time for loved ones off the course.

“(Seeing family has) been such a huge game-changer for me,” she said. She added that her new lifestyle was a “blessing in disguise” from the disappointment of a shortened season.

Fletcher said that she hopes to be back on campus soon, and she has been putting the situation in perspective for her players, telling them to take solace in the fact that all other teams are in the same boat.

For a senior such as Riley, the disappointment is two-fold. Not only can she not compete this spring, but 2020 could be her last season representing NU.

“When everyone left it was abrupt. I really didn’t get to say goodbye to a lot of people that (I) would have wanted to,” she said. “Hopefully it won’t be too long before I get back, because I miss it a ton.”

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