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'Risen from the ashes,' Dartmouth women's golf goes from cut to Ivy League champ

'Risen from the ashes,' Dartmouth women's golf goes from cut to Ivy League champ

The Ivy League’s Arthur A. Brennan trophy in hand, Dartmouth head women’s golf coach Alex Kirk and his two seniors, Katherine Sung and Penelope Tir, shared a lengthy hug and held on tight.

No one could take this away.

With a two-shot win over Yale, the Big Green captured the program’s first Ivy crown since the league began conducting its women’s golf championship in 1997. But that was only half the significance; the landmark win also came nearly four years after Dartmouth’s previous administration cut five sports, including women’s golf.

“The emotions just poured out,” Kirk said. “It’s the release, honestly, from where we were, in the ashes of no program – you don’t realize what you have until someone takes it away.”

Kirk was the reigning coach of the year, and his team was coming off a runner-up showing at the 2019 Ivy League Championship, when the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the final few months of the 2019-20 season. Sung and Tir were wrapping up their prep careers (Tir had taken a gap year) and preparing to join the Big Green as freshman that fall. The program had just fundraised for a new team van and upgraded indoor practice area, too.

But then came the hammer. Via a Zoom call on July 9, 2020, 110 student-athletes and 15 staffers for men’s and women’s golf, men’s and women’s swimming and diving, and men’s lightweight rowing were all notified that their programs were being discontinued, effective immediately. The school-owned golf course, Hanover Country Club, where Kirk doubled as head pro, was also being closed permanently.

“With 35 teams and the smallest enrollment in the Ivy League, athletic recruitment at Dartmouth has begun to impact our ability to achieve the right balance between applicants who are accomplished in athletics and applicants who excel in other pursuits,” wrote then school president Phil Hanlon in an email. “To achieve greater flexibility in shaping the incoming class, I asked [athletic director] Harry [Sheehy] to reduce the number of recruited athletes in each entering class by 10%.”

The decision scattered Kirk and his team. Three undergraduates transferred, two to Columbia and one to Georgetown. Sung and Tir opted to enroll at Dartmouth anyway, Sung working toward an economics degree and Tir majoring in biomechanical engineering.

"It made me step back and evaluate whether I came to the school just for golf," Sung told DartmouthSports.com. "Without golf, how would I feel and where would I fit in with the community? I was able to find myself and develop myself on campus, but I would still go out, walk to the practice areas and hit balls, pick them up and do it again. It was definitely a tough first year trying to figure out my identity without golf.”

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As for Kirk, he and his wife sold their home and moved to Naples, Florida, where Kirk took a job as the pro at The Glades Golf and Country Club. Then tragedy struck, as Kirk’s 23-year-old daughter, Mackenzie, died suddenly on Dec. 2, 2020.

“The year could not get any worse,” Kirk said. “At the time, I didn’t think I’d ever come back [to Dartmouth]. I thought I was done.”

But fate would soon take a positive turn. After some legal pressure from Dartmouth golf’s alumni base and potential Title IX violations, Dartmouth reversed course on Jan. 29, 2021. Nearly seven months after initially cutting women’s golf and the four other programs, Hanlon announced that the school was reinstating all five immediately, citing statistical oversights by Sheehy during the decision-making process.

“I realize many of you were disappointed by the July announcement,” Hanlon wrote. “It is my hope that as we move forward with this process, we will all work together to make our athletics program even stronger.”

Kirk wasn’t re-hired until that June – a long story, he says. And with a depleted roster and no golf course, the rebuild would be demanding. No Ivy programs competed in 2020-21 because of the pandemic, so adversity was being felt across the board in the league (Brown chose to shutter its golf programs), but Kirk’s squad had just five players to start that first season back – and only four could break 100.

By Spring 2022, however, Kirk had added some reinforcements. Dartmouth won its first tournament of the season in early April, at Prospect Bay Intercollegiate, and went on to tie for fourth at the 2022 Ivy League Championship. The following season featured three wins and a solo third at conference. The rebuild was accelerating.

“I really felt like this year was going to be our year,” Kirk said.

Kirk reckons that this year’s Big Green squad “leads the nation in questions,” as they are an analytical bunch. Talented and cohesive, too. Though Dartmouth didn’t win a tournament until the Ivy League Championship, it finished second or third in five of seven tournaments, including at the season-opening Princeton Invitational, where the Big Green fired 9 under in the final round to set an Ivy 18-hole record.

Much of that success was achieved by practicing on simulators and indoor surfaces, or by hopping on planes to chase warmer weather. The team’s now home, Montcalm Golf Club in Enfield, New Hampshire, doesn’t open until this Friday.

Yet, with his squad trailing by just two shots entering the final round last Sunday at The Stanwich Club in Greenwich, Connecticut, Kirk remained calm.

“I never really felt like we were chasing; it was more just waiting for our moment,” Kirk said.

Tir bogeyed her final hole but still shot 2-under 70. Sung and Sophie Thai each finished off T-2 finishes while freshman Caroline Chung, who carded 72 in the Round 2, ended up T-12.

“This healed the wound a little bit,” said Kirk, whose team will soon find out where they will be sent for NCAA regionals, which will be played May 6-8 at six sites across the country. “We’ve been through a lot, but we were resilient and stuck through it. And with great people and great players, we finally rose to the challenge.”

Added Sung, in speaking to DartmouthSports.com: “Coach talks a lot about our class being a turning point in the trajectory of the team. We believe we have set the foundation for a great team culture, hopefully facilitating DWG's success in the years to come.”

Dartmouth now has a new president (Sian Beilock) and athletic director (Mike Harrity). Upon returning to campus last Monday, Kirk took the trophy to Harrity’s office to show off – and as Kirk fielded questions over the phone, Harrity was shuttling the hardware off to Beilock’s office.

Further proof that Dartmouth’s resurrection was deserved.

“I always say Dartmouth, at that time, hit a ball out of bounds; we just had to re-tee and keep moving forward,” Kirk said. “We always had faith. I came back because I was on a mission to do this … because I love the alumni and I love my players. And we succeeded.

“We’ve risen from the ashes.”