KNOXVILLE, Tenn. and LEXINGTON, Ky. – Both far and near, two Kentucky women’s golfers had spectacular Mondays.
In Knoxville, Tennessee, senior Leonie Bettel overcame soggy conditions and continued her torrid start to the 2018-19 season by soaring to the top of the leaderboard early in Monday’s 36-hole start to the Mercedes-Benz Collegiate Championship and staying in the top five by day’s end.
Meanwhile back in Lexington, at the Morehead State Greenbrier Invitational, sophomore Rikke Svejgård Nielsen made her Kentucky debut in dazzling fashion with a 36-hole total of even par, including a 2-under-par 70 in the second round when the rain finally let up at Greenbrier Country Club to climb into the lead. She’s got a six-stroke advantage heading into the final round.
Svejgård Nielsen and Fite are playing as individuals on the home front while the rest of the Wildcats compete this week in the Mercedes-Benz Collegiate Championship at Cherokee Country Club (5,900 yards, par 71) in Knoxville. With Bettel leading the way for the second consecutive tournament, Kentucky fired rounds of 302 and 300 Monday for a total of 34-over par. The Wildcats are in a ninth place in the 17-team field.
“I think we hung in there OK,” UK head coach Golda Borst said. “We definitely could have been better. The back and forth with the rain was definitely hard. For the most part I thought we hung tough, but we definitely could have handled it better.”
Charlotte leads the Mercedes-Benz field at 17-over par. Middle Tennessee State’s Hanley Long is the only player in the 93-player field in red numbers. She leads Bettel by two strokes at 1-under par.
Tuesday’s Mercedes-Benz third round will begin at 8:30 a.m. with a shotgun start. Live stats will continue to be available at GolfStat.com. Live scoring will not be available for the Greenbrier finale, but fans in Lexington are welcome to support the Wildcats during Tuesday’s final round at Greenbrier Country Club (5,961 yards, par 72). Play begins there at 9 a.m. Admission is free.
“We know we’re better, so that’s what we’re going to focus on (Tuesday),” said Borst, who is in Knoxville. “We know we’re better and we know we can play this golf course lot better. We know we’ve got to hit more greens and give ourselves a lot more opportunities. We did not reach our performance goals today for sure and that shows in the scores. We’ve just got to step up tomorrow, post a score and see where that puts us.”
While some of the team struggled with Monday’s conditions, the remnants of Hurricane Florence couldn’t rain on Bettel’s early-season parade or Svejgård Nielsen’s UK debut.
Bettel extended her streak of par-or-better rounds to four after a first-round 71 – the most consecutive rounds of par or better by a Wildcat since Josephine Chang posted four straight to begin her Kentucky career – before a 72 in the afternoon.
In sole possession of fifth place, Bettel is in prime position to make a run at the title on Tuesday on a course she appears to love playing.
Bettel leads the field with nine birdies with five in the first round and four in the second round. She’s been particularly good on the back nine where she has seven of her birdies, including a remarkable four straight in the first round. Had it not been for four bogeys over a five-hole stretch in the first round, Bettel would likely be leading the tournament.
Worth keeping in mind for Tuesday’s finale, Bettel fired a tournament-record 65 in last season’s Mercedes-Benz Collegiate Championship final round.
“She just needs to focus on her game (instead of the leaderboard Tuesday),” Borst said. “She caught a glimpse of the leaderboard (Monday) and I think that got her going a little bit emotionally. So she just needs to focus on her game and keep making birdies.”
As Bettel was battling for the lead Monday afternoon, Svejgård Nielsen was running away with it in Lexington. After posting a 74 in her first collegiate round, Svejgård Nielsen came back in the afternoon with a 70.
Svejgård Nielsen went out with a 35 on her second 18 and followed suit with another 35 on the back nine. She recorded eight pars and a birdie on the front and had three more birdies on the back but was neutralized a bit by two bogeys.
“Rikke has really been working hard, and so has Sarah,” Bettel said. “It’s just hard when you’ve got five spots on the team and eight good players that are ready to play, so it was great that we had an opportunity for them to play at home, and I think it’s good to see them both step up. The fact that Rikke put two rounds together – she’s leading by six – shows a lot. She’s really pushing to get into the lineup. We’ll see what she does tomorrow. Hopefully she can win.”
UK is just 14 shots behind third place at the Mercedes-Benz Collegiate Championship thanks to Bettel’s brilliance. Supporting Bettel on Monday was junior Sarah Shipley and freshman Casey Ott, both of who are tied for 48th at 11-over par.
Sophomore Josephine Chang is tied for 67th at 14-over par and freshman Ryan Bender is tied for 85th at 19-over par.
Senior Claire Carlin, playing as an individual only in Knoxville, was at 2-under par midway through her second round and 4-over par overall but couldn’t sustain the momentum. She’s at 13-over par and tied for 60th.
Back in Lexington, Fite was also in action in the MSU Greenbrier Invitational and is tied for 11th with scores of 79 and 77, good for 12-over par.
The field in Tennessee features 17 teams, six of which made the NCAA regionals field a season ago. It’s annually one of the top fall tournaments on the collegiate golf schedule and appears to be so again with UK, host Tennessee, BYU, Coastal Carolina, Eastern Kentucky, East Tennessee State, Illinois, Iowa, Kent State, Maryland, Middle Tennessee State, Ole Miss, South Dakota State, UCF, UT-San Antonio, UNC-Charlotte and UT-Chattanooga all in attendance.
This is UK’s 11th all-time appearance in the Mercedes-Benz Collegiate Championship, but it’s traditionally been a tough stop for the Wildcats with last season’s seventh-place finish serving as the Wildcats’ best finish to date. UK played well in the tournament last year with a 54-hole total of 865 (13-over par), Kentucky’s best score of the 2017-18 season.