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Len Ziehm On Golf

NU women golfers are in spotlight as NCAA tees off at Rich Harvest

The golf version of the NCAA Championships tees off Friday at Rich Harvest Farms. The women go first in the competition that will keep the private layout in Sugar Grove a busy place until the last putt drops in the men’s tournament on May 31.

Northwestern is the “home team’’ in the women’s competition. Coach Emily Fletcher’s team starts play at 1:06 p.m. with Wildcats having tee times through 1:50 p.m. They’ll be paired with players from Miami and Kent State. The same teams will begin play at 8:36 a.m. in Saturday’s second round.

The field will be cut from 24 teams to 15 after Saturday’s play. Two more 18-hole rounds are on tap for Sunday and Monday before the field is reduced to eight teams for the two-day match play portion of the tournament, which will determine the champion. Last year Northwestern finished ninth in the stroke play portion – the school’s best NCAA showing – but came up one spot short of advancing to match play.

Illinois will be the “home team’’ in the men’s finals, which start on May 26. Coach Mike Small’s Illini had to rally in Wednesday’s final round of regional play at West Lafayette, Ind., to earn their 10th straight berth in the NCAA finals.

On the men’s side five teams advanced to the finals from each of six regionals. Illinois was in sixth place after two days of play on Purdue University’s Kampen Course but climbed into third with a strong final round on Wednesday.

“We’ve qualified for the national championship every way you can imagine for the last 10 years,’’ said Small. “This was unique because we were treading water for a day and a half and struggling.’’

This Illini team is without a senior and Nick Hardy, the Illinois State Amateur champion, sparked the final round surge at West Lafayette. The junior from Northbrook shared medalist honors in the regional with a 3-under-par 213 for the 54 holes.

While regional drama was good for Illinois it was just the opposite for Northwestern. The Wildcats narrowly missed a finals berth in a regional at Baton Rouge, La. NU tied with Jacksonville for fifth place during the regulation 54 holes but Jacksonville earned the berth in the finals on the second hole of a sudden death playoff.

Interestingly, Illinois and Northwestern had NCAA qualifiers in both the men’s and women’s competition. The NU women survived regional play while the Illini missed out. On the men’s side Illinois and Northwestern finished one-two in the Big Ten tournament but only Illini got through the regional.

The NCAA women’s finals started in 1982 and have never been played in the Chicago area. The men’s national championship was first held in 1898 and Chicago courses hosted four previous times – at Olympia Fields in 1931 and 1943, North Shore in Glenview in 1936 and Conway Farms in Lake Forest in 1997.