WALLA WALLA — For Skip Molitor, trying to decide who his No. 1 player is heading into this weekend’s Northwest Conference Fall Classic is about as easy as counting stars in the night sky.
That’s because there’s less than a half-stroke difference between Molitor’s top three players. And discard one bad tournament and his No. 4 player would rank No. 1.
“I think the most intriguing thing about our fall season is our balance,” the Whitman College women’s golf coach said. “We have always had balance, but we have taken it to a bizarre level this fall.”
Junior Catelyn Weber (Bellevue, Wash.) leads the team in stroke average at 80.6 through eight competitive rounds of play. But she narrowly leads junior Katie Zajicek (Corvallis, Ore.), who is at 80.8. And Zajicek is barely ahead of sophomore Kelley Sweeney (Enumclaw, Wash.), who has averaged an even 81 strokes per round.
And then there’s senior Tate Head (Bellingham, Wash.), who will play No. 4 this weekend at the Tri-Mountain Golf Course in Ridgefield, Wash. Head’s stroke average is 82.2, but if you eliminate a difficult two days at the O’Brien Invitational in South Bend, Ind., in early September, she moves to the front of the class.
“I think any of our top four players, even our top five players, is capable of contending for the championship this weekend,” Molitor said. “It all comes down to if Kelsey Morrison shoots par or not. If she challenges par, that will make it more of a challenge.”
Morrison is George Fox University’s No. 1 player and a legitimate contender for NCAA Division III player of the year honors. The senior from Yucca Valley, Calif., brings a 75.3 scoring average into the Fall Classic.
But beating Morrison is not an impossible task, Molitor said.
“I think any of our players is capable of playing in that final group on Sunday and winning it all,” Molitor said, pointing out that two years ago in the NWC Spring Classic Zajicek emerged victorious with Morrison in the field.
The Saturday-Sunday Fall Classic is the final event of the fall portion of Whitman’s schedule, and it’s the only tournament that counts toward determining next spring’s conference winner. The Fall Classic and the Spring Classic are equally weighted, with the Northwest Conference Championships counting double.
However, the individual who claims medalist honors this weekend will assure herself of a place on the all-Northwest Conference team.
Molitor believes his team is well prepared for the weekend and the Tri-Mountain course.
“We have played eight competitive rounds so far, and we’ve had a solid fall season,” the coach said. “We’ve posted only two scores that were uncomfortably high, but they were back at Notre Dame at what I would consider a national level venue on a Ben Crenshaw-designed course where if you missed a shot it often cost you more than just one shot.
“But if you compare where we are to where we were last year, we basically picked up where we left off. Our first few rounds last year we never broke 324, but the last few were 320 or better, and we are back at that level.
“And anytime you break 320 you are averaging in the 70s, which is where we want to be.”
Senior Caitlin Holland (Edgewood, Wash.) will play No. 5 for the Missionaries and will be right at home on the Tri-Mountain course. She toured the course in 83 last weekend when the Whits took on PLU in a dual match in preparation for this weekend’s tournament.
“Her last three rounds have been in the low 80s,” Molitor said of Holland. “And that’s getting back to her normal form. She struggled for a bit, but she’s real competitive with the other four girls we are taking to the Fall Classic.”
The Whits shot a 322 score on the Tri-Mountain course, led by Weber’s medalist-winning 78 and Zajicek’s 80.
“It was very fortuitous that we got the chance to play the course,” Molitor said. “There are several holes where you ask yourself if you want to come at the green from a certain angle or just blast away.
“It’s a nice layout and very legitimate. We always try to have our conference tournaments on challenging courses, and this one is a good enough test that it will penalize mistakes but is very scorable as well.”
George Fox is ranked No. 5 nationally and worthy of the favorite’s role, Molitor said. But his team is ranked No. 14, and anything less than a second-place finish will be viewed as a setback.
“We are certainly billed as the two favorites,” Molitor said of the Bruins and his Missionaries. “But Whitworth has had some strong showings, as has Willamette. That should be the top half of the field going into the tournament.
“But we certainly go in with the intention of finishing no lower than second.”
And a little rain, the coach suggested, just might work in his team’s favor.
“If it rains, it might help our chances,” Molitor said. “The first major tournament we won was the Spring Classic in 2011, and it was brutal conditions. Zajicek shot 79-79 and won by six shots.
“It’s not much fun in tough conditions,” he added. “But mentally tough players tend to benefit from poor conditions more so than players who are inclined to worry about the weather rather than execute their golf game.”
Molitor obviously believes his players are mentally tough.