Even as Brooke Ferrell and Michelle Cheung crossed the Kohl Center stage this past May and graduated from the University of Wisconsin and its women’s golf program with 202 competitive rounds between them, coach Todd Oehrlein knew the returning parts in his program would keep his Badgers deep.
“But it’s maybe even deeper than I had first anticipated,” Oehrlein acknowledged last week.
Indeed, the 15th-year coach had no idea senior Aya Johnson -- sidelined the past two seasons with a back injury -- would come back as strong as she has. Likewise, Oehrlein had no inkling that Lexi Harkins -- a Crystal Lake, Illinois, native and the top finisher for North Carolina at the 2017 NCAA Division I Championship -- was looking to transfer to a school closer to home and, by late July, would settle on UW as the one where she would use her final year of eligibility.
Both will be in the lineup Monday -- Johnson at the No. 1 spot, Harkins at the No. 4 -- when the Badgers open the 2017-18 season at the Minnesota Invitational. Junior Jessica Reinecke and seniors Becky Klongland and Gabby Curtis will round out UW’s top five while redshirt freshman Bobbi Stricker, a walk-on, earned her first tournament start with a 76-74 showing in qualifying.
“There is a lot of depth and numbers,” said Oehrlein, who is carrying 13 golfers on his roster this season and will have U.S. Women’s Amateur qualifier Tess Hackworthy and injured junior Nat Zeng back at home for the opener. “It’s exciting. To have (the Johnson and Harkins) situations on top of a roster I’m already excited about, I do feel that there is great ability and great talent. … It’s going to be very competitive. I think there is a lot of great opportunity in front of us.”
Oehrlein acknowledge that, with a talented, 13-player roster, come deep thoughts about how best to use that depth. With a lineup full of experience, it is likely the three incoming freshmen -- Claire Fitzgerald, Alyssa Gromala and Mackenzie Hahn -- could redshirt as could any of the returnees not traveling this week (Hackworthy, Zeng, Ali Nageotte and Eloise Healey).
“We’re thinking about things like that,” said Oehrlein, who said those decisions could hinge on Zeng’s recovery from elbow surgery that will keep her out of the first half of the fall season and how competition for the top five positions plays out early in the season. “You’ve got to make sure you’re protected and you have a deep team. Those are all things we need to look at.”
Meanwhile, Oehrlein is eager to see how chemistry develops around Johnson and Harkins.
Johnson is coming off an exceptional summer in which she won the Michigan Women’s State Amateur, playing seven rounds of golf in five days, and qualified for the U.S. Women’s Am. Still, the Michigan native hasn’t only played 22 collegiate rounds, none since March of 2015.
“At the core of who you are, you want the best for them and I was fearful she was never going to be able to play again,” Oehrlein said. “It was that significant of an injury. She’s unbelievably persistent. She’s stayed patient. And she’s had an unbelievable summer. Her back has held up. We’re really optimistic, for her, that she is able to stay healthy and compete and finish out her career strong. She’s been really special, but she’s had a lot of obstacles along the way.”
Harkins played 33 tournaments at North Carolina over three seasons. She had a 75.35 career stroke average that dropped each year (it was a 74.67 last season as a junior).
“She’s a tremendous player, extremely talented,” Oehrlein said of Harkins, who played in the first stage of LPGA Tour Qualifying School last month to earn Symetra Tour status for the post- collegiate portion of her career. “She’s going to be a wonderful addition to our team.”
The Badgers are looking better back-to-back fourth-place finishes in the Big Ten Conference. They haven’t finished higher than fourth since 2003 in the final year of a 14-year run as coach for Dennis Tiziani, who is now better known around the program as Stricker’s grand-father.
UW also made its fourth NCAA Regional appearance in five years last spring, but was forced to play without Ferrell, the team’s No. 1 golfer whose nagging wrist injury sidelined her. The former Badger continued to struggle with the injury through the summer and recently had surgery.
“The returning players, I do think had really good summers,” Oehrlein said. “I think they all would say, ‘Boy, I wish I had been a little more consistent’ in stretches. But I tell you what, they all had moments where they played outstanding and … took steps. You’re anxious to get the season started and excited to see that growth and development here for our program and our team.”