Sophomores Kelsey Baker and Sharon Li are not strangers to representing the women’s golf team against tough competition, but even Baker and Li hadn’t faced anything like the tournament field they competed against this summer at the Pure Silk Women’s Collegiate Team Championships in Powell, Ohio. During the course of the 2011-12 season, the sophomore duo shot the Bombers’ top two scores at five of the team’s nine tournaments, including the Empire 8 Championships.
Held from July 31 to Aug. 2, the Championships are an elite tournament organized by the National Golf Coaches Association in which more than 50 pairs of players representing schools from all three divisions of the NCAA and the NAIA take turns competing. The tournament uses three formats of play, including alternate shot, better ball and aggregate. Head Coach Dan Wood said the summer tournament is often used as a warm-up tournament for the U.S. Women’s Amateur Championship. He also said Baker and Li might not have even been able to make the field had more Division I players attended.
Some of the teams at the Championship included Division I schools such as Harvard University, the University of Tennessee and last year’s Division III runner-up, DePauw University.
Baker and Li said DePauw juniors Paige Gooch and Kelsey Smith were their toughest Division III opponents on the field, and Baker admitted she was anxious about competing against a field loaded with so much talent.
“Going into it, I was kind of nervous actually, just because of the fact that it was against Division I and Division II schools and a lot bigger-name schools,” Baker said.
Li on the other hand, had a more laid-back stance, despite flying in from her home in Hong Kong to be able to compete in the Championships.
“There wasn’t much expectation,” Li said. “I just decided to enjoy the game and just try to get more experience playing with more experienced players and just have fun.”
The Championships’ challenge was in its unique format. The first round was played using the alternate shot format, in which players tee off on every other hole, with one partner teeing off on even-numbered holes and the other teeing off on odd-numbered holes. Baker and Li didn’t do as well on the first day as they did during the rest of the tournament, but Li said it still offered an interesting variation from most of her regular tournaments.
“I thought it was a great way to compete,” Li said. “It gives you just a perspective to be able to play with one of your teammates instead of against them.”
However, Baker said the alternate shot format could be stressful.
“If you hit a bad shot, then you feel bad, and then it puts more pressure on your partner and then more pressure on yourself,” Baker said. “So that one was mentally straining for a lot of people.”
Baker and Li didn’t just meet their own expectations and those of Bombers head coach Dan Wood — they exceeded them. The pair finished tied for 21st out of 54 teams, seven shots higher than any other Division III school at the tournament and higher than 21 Division I schools. After starting out with a round of 10-over-par 82 on the first day of the tournament, Baker and Li shot a 3-under-par 69 on the second day and a 2-over-par 74 on the third day to finish the tournament at 16-over-par 304.
Baker said the format change was an important factor in her and Li’s strong finish, noting that aggregate and better ball were more suited to their skill set than alternate shot.
Wood said having Baker and Li compete in the Pure Silk tournament gave them extra confidence for the upcoming season and a jump start on learning how to compete under tournament conditions.
“They know they can play well no matter what the distance or the difficulty of the course,” Wood said. “The other thing that will help them is that the first four weeks of our fall season, they will have had practice rounds.”
For Baker, competing in the tournament showed that the Bombers can rub shoulders with the best talent in the country.
“It really showed that we can be competitive with bigger schools and not to look down on the skill that I have,” Baker said.