KNOXVILLE, Tenn. and LEXINGTON, Ky. – When Kentucky women’s golfers Leonie Bettel and Rikke Svejgård Nielsen teed off Tuesday for their final rounds this week, they thought they were just playing for championships. They had no idea they would be chasing history as well.
In securing two separate medalist honors Tuesday – Bettel fired a tournament-record 65 to win the Mercedes-Benz Collegiate Championship in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Svjegård Nielsen cruised to a title at the Morehead State Greenbrier Invitational in Lexington with a total score of 1-under par – the duo became the first Wildcats to win separate tournaments on the same day.
As a matter of fact, it’s the first time Kentucky players have won two tournament championships in the same year since Kate Rogerson won four tournaments by herself in 1987-88. UK won two events in 2016-17, but one of them was a dual match.
“It’s a great day for Kentucky women’s golf,” UK head coach Golda Borst said so matter of factly.
One of the best, no doubt.
Bettel rallied from a two-shot deficit to a dominating victory at the Cherokee Country Club (5,900 yards, par 71) in Knoxville with a round for the ages. She had a lengthy putt on her final hole for the outright school record, a 63, but left it short, and then missed a short putt to tie it.
Nonetheless, she tied the now 22-year-old tournament record she set a season ago when she fired a 65 – also in the final round of last year’s tournament. More importantly, she collected her first collegiate championship after coming so close so many times before with five previous top-10 showings.
“It feels great,” Bettel said. “I guess I haven’t quite realized it yet. I’m excited about it. I’ve been working for it for a while now. I’m just excited that everything came together and worked out.”
Said Borst: “Leo’s been working hard to get this win for years. I’m just so incredibly proud of her. She’s really fought hard emotionally and mentally to get to a spot where she could earn this win. I think it was really good that she had to come from behind today and be able to go low. I’m just really happy and proud of her and it’s very well deserved.”
Just moments before Bettel rolled in her tap-in putt to claim her first championship, Svejgård Nielsen was doing the same nearly 200 miles away back in Lexington at the Greenbrier Country Club (5,961 yards, par 72). Playing in her first college tournament, Svejgård Nielsen blew away the competition with a 54-hole total of 1-under par.
Entering the day with a six-shot lead, Svejgård Nielsen didn’t rest on her advantage. Instead she pulled away with her second straight round in red numbers for a final-round 71. She won by a staggering 11 shots.
“I tried to think of it as just another round of golf, but the nerves were bigger and I was nervous going out there,” Svejgård Nielsen said. “I had (student volunteer assistant) Zoe (Collins) with me, which helped me just to talk through the shots with her. I hit a lot of greens and played on the right side of the pin, which helped me get into my game.”
Svejgård Nielsen’s final round included two birdies, just one bogey and the rest pars. Her first three collegiate rounds, two of which under the remnants of Hurricane Florence on Monday, were 74-70-71.
“Rikke really has really worked hard and it’s great to see her get more comfortable over here,” Borst said. “She hasn’t been able to crack the lineup so hopefully this will give her some confidence and hopefully she can come back and continue that steady play for us.”
The lineup that played in Knoxville, led by Bettel, finished in 11th place in the 17-team field at 44-over par. UK saved its best round for last with a 294 but was unable to make any headway up the leaderboard despite Bettel’s big day.
Freshman Casey Ott and juniors Josephine Chang and Sarah Shipley contributed to Tuesday’s team score with scores of 75, 76 and 78, respectively. Ott tied for 49th (15-over par), Shipley tied for 59th (18-over par) and Chang tied for 62nd (19-over par). Also in the lineup for a second straight week was freshman Ryan Bender, who placed 89th at 28-over par.
Senior Claire Carlin played as an individual and enjoyed a solid final round with a 74. She neutralized a triple bogey on 18 with three birdies to tie for 54th at 16-over par.
In Lexington, in addition to Svejgård Nielsen’s big day, sophomore Sarah Fite had a solid two days with a three-round score of 13-over par to tie for fifth place. She played well Tuesday with a 73, including a three-hole stretch on her final nine with three consecutive birdies.
But the story in Knoxville was Bettel.
She began her day on the sixth hole and started with four straight pars. At that point she was still a couple of shots back, but she had her sights set on the back nine, which she absolutely punished this week to a tune of 8-under par.
“The back nine just fits me well,” Bettel said. “I enjoy playing (those holes). The par 5s are always fun because you can reach them in two and get some great birdie opportunities.”
Bettel began her move with a birdie on No. 10, four straight pars, and then went birdie, eagle, birdie on 15, 16 and 17. That put her in the lead, an advantage she was not aware of but one she did not relinquish.
“I did not want to know where I was at on the leaderboard today,” Bettel said. “Yesterday I got a glimpse of it at some point and it completely backfired. I did not know how to handle it. Today I was just not thinking about it and stuck to my game and tried to figure how to hit my next shot and stay relaxed and focused.”
The senior from Austria made her final turn at No. 1 and birdied that to get to 6-under par. She gave a shot back at No. 2 but then birdied back-to-back holes to get to 7-under par for the round with the school record right in front of her.
Only Isabelle Johansson and Liz Breed had fired 64s before. Bettel had a crack at it on No. 5, her final hole of the tournament, but she three-putted for a bogey.
Nonetheless, Bettel captured her first career championship with a 54-hole career low score of 208. That also ties Bettel with Johansson and Breed for the best 54-hole score of the Borst era.
Bettel and Svejgård Nielsen likely wish UK’s home tournament, the Bettie Lou Evans Invitational, was next week to keep the positive momentum rolling, but they’ll have to wait for Oct. 5-7 for that.
The Wildcats will break for nearly three weeks before resuming with their third fall tournament of the season.