National Golf Invitational: Rutgers remembering to find the joy of postseason while chasing a title

A certain kind of magic happens when the textbooks close at the end of the spring. Suddenly the calendar is open. Rutgers head coach Kari Williams didn’t realize what a gamechanger that would be, the postseason experience being something of a new thing for Rutgers.

“It wasn’t rushed, it wasn’t harried in any way, it was actually kind of a luxury to go to practice,” Williams said. “… It’s just been a ton of fun for two weeks.”

Rutgers is one off the lead after two rounds of the National Golf Invitational, having clearly done an effective job of bringing that relaxed vibe from the East Coast all the way to Ak-Chin Southern Dunes in Maricopa, Arizona. Then again, every morning at the NGI, country music blares as the 10-team field warms up. There’s ice cream at the end of the day and to Williams, this week feels a little bit like the USGA events and national-team events that her players covet  in that celebratory, no-detail-spared kind of way.

Scores: National Golf Invitational | Photos

“They are playing hard and they’re competing, but I think there’s joy in it that we don’t necessarily see in the regular season when we’re all in the grind of trying to be as ranked as high as we can and do all of those things so we can get the next-best recruit and all of that,” Williams said. “This has been more about the playing of the golf and that’s fun.”

At 8 over for 36 holes, Rutgers trails University of North Carolina-Wilmington by a shot. A few errant swings have been costly, but the Scarlet Knights have figured out how to make some birdies when they need them to make up for mistakes.

A five-shot gap separates Rutgers from Santa Clara in third place at 13 over, with Arkansas State another three shots behind that. Three players are tied for the individual lead at 2 under: Santa Clara’s Kelsey Kim, Jacksonville State’s Jinger Heath, and UNCW’s Minouche Rooijmans.

UNCW head coach Cindy Ho liked how her team performed in the lead, so it won’t be easy for Rutgers to overtake them on Sunday. Ho thinks the potential is there for good theater.

“That back and forth tomorrow, this is why I came here,” she said. “Try to give people some experience but also find a way to reward our team, see if we can win a championship.”

Williams penciled in postseason dates early in the fall – NCAA Regionals and the National Golf Invitational. Rutgers could have been at the latter last season, before a nasty strain of the flu left them severely weakened right before the postseason.

Williams wasn’t sure she would even be able to field a team for last spring’s Big 10 Championship. The Scarlet Knights competed, but Williams ended it there, declining an invitation into the inaugural NGI.

“They’d been vomiting for 10 days and they were going to miss graduation so we did not accept last year,” Williams said. “I had really wanted to, but we just couldn’t get it done.”

To be at the NGI in early May takes commitment. Three players sacrificed commencement for the chance to play one last time with the team: Lucrezia Rossettin, Leigha Divine and Rikke Nordvik (who is Rutgers’ sub this week). Williams points to Divine as one of the most gratifying success stories on the team. Divine didn’t make the lineup as a freshman but has blossomed since. She qualified for the 2021 U.S. Women’s Open and the 2022 U.S. Women’s Amateur.

The rest of Williams’ team is made up of freshmen, and there’s a joy in coaching newcomers that Williams, 53, thinks she’s only fully embraced now that she’s in the back half of her coaching career. They think they know everything while simultaneously never wanting to ask a question because they’re afraid it will be a dumb one.

“They make me laugh,” she said. “They’re hilarious.”

There’s a joy, too, in watching her players tee it up with the best in the country – notably at the Big 10 Championship – with both fight and belief in their hearts. While acknowledging that golf tournaments are three rounds, it’s at the 36-hole mark that Williams often steps back and sees most clearly what her team is made of.

“I love it when they go play against some of the top players in the world and have some success,” Williams said.

Rutgers played a loaded schedule, including Big 10- and Pac-12-heavy fields. They won their own Rutgers Invitational at the beginning of April.

“The thing about winning tournaments – it doesn’t come as often as you think it will,” Williams said.

Regardless, winning helps a lot of things, and it felt especially helpful to Williams on Saturday night that Rutgers had that feeling so fresh in their mind. Ak-Chin Southern Dunes has some scoreable holes, but some stretches that can be costly. Above all, Williams hopes for a good fight on Sunday, from the whole team.

“I hope my seniors spend the day just reveling in the chance to compete as college athletes for one last day and that my freshmen are just out there playing their guts out to try to send these seniors off with a win.”

Story originally appeared on GolfWeek