MISSOUA — The Montana women’s golf team will play its final tournament before the Big Sky Conference championship this week when the Grizzlies compete at the Wyoming Cowgirl Classic in Maricopa, Arizona.
The two-day, 18-team tournament will be played Thursday and Friday at the Ak-Chin Southern Dunes Golf Course, Arizona’s fifth-ranked course according to Golf Magazine.
The Big Sky championship will be held April 21-23 at Boulder City, Nevada.
“I played the course a few weeks ago, and it’s in fantastic shape. I’m looking forward to getting on a course where the greens are rolling well. It’s supposed to be warm, so we’re looking forward to it,” said second-year coach Matt Higgins.
The tournament, now in its 11th year, has seven Big Sky teams among the 18 that will be competing. A Big Sky school has won the tournament five times in its first 10 years, with Idaho, which would go on to win last spring’s Big Sky championship, claiming the 2016 title with three scores of 291.
Montana shot rounds of 308, 300 and 302 to tie for 10th, with Hayley Bingham the low individual with rounds of 74, 75 and 73 to tie for 15th.
Two rounds will be played on Thursday, a final 18 holes on Friday.
Montana played just one tournament in March after opening the spring season with a pair of tournaments in California in February.
At the Spring Break Invitational in Dallas, Texas, last month, the Grizzlies used a second-round score of 298, their lowest round since last year’s Big Sky championship, to finish fifth out of 16 teams.
The team will end a three-week hiatus from competition when it tees it up this week.
“I gave the team all of spring break off. It came midway in our season, so it was good timing,” said Higgins. “It was a good way to get rejuvenated and get some new energy. When we came back from break, there wasn’t any rust. They were ready to go.
“We have three weeks left to really work on the things we need to work on to prepare for our final tournament and conference. The girls are hitting the ball really well, so I’m looking forward to continuing what we did at our last tournament and hopefully doing a little better this week.”
At the Spring Break Invitational, Montana had four scores in the 70s in round one to shoot a 310, then had four scores of 77 or better in round two, with Teigan Avery shooting a 73, Kari Opatz and Baylee Barckley 74s, to come in at 298, the team’s best round since carding a 297 in the final round of the Big Sky championship last season.
Only Barckley was able to shoot in the 70s in round three in Dallas as the Grizzlies, who were in contention for a top-three finish, closed with a disappointing 321.
“We’ve been good at hitting fairways. When you’re hitting fairways 75 percent of the time, you need to hit greens in regulation. That’s one of the things we’ve really worked on,” said Higgins.
“Another thing I’d like to see is the consistency. We got four scores finally at our last tournament, but we need to get that consistency where it’s not just one or two rounds but all three.”
Higgins will take a lineup to Arizona this week of Opatz, who has the team’s best season scoring average of 77.5, Barckley, Butte High graduate Hailey Hoagland, Amanda Kahn and Alexa Schendelman.
Kahn, who hasn’t competed for Montana since October, and Schendelman, who played last month in Dallas, her first tournament since October, are the team’s lone seniors. Both qualified last week to compete at the Cowgirl Classic.
“I’m looking for them to give us that senior leadership on the course this week,” said Higgins. “I think they are really looking forward to that opportunity.
“Amanda was our second-lowest qualifier last week. She’s playing with a lot of confidence and is hitting the ball really well. She’s going into this week with a lot of confidence.”
After returning to Missoula from Arizona this weekend, Montana will have a week and a half to prepare for the Big Sky championship, which opens at the Boulder Creek Golf Club on Friday, April 21.
In a departure from previous seasons, this year’s tournament will be played over the weekend, with 18 holes on Friday, Saturday and Sunday instead of starting on a Monday and concluding with a midweek finish.
“I’ll see how this week’s tournament shapes up, then we’ll look at this spring as a whole,” said Higgins about his championship lineup. “We’ll probably do some qualifying next week, but I don’t know for how many spots.
“Everyone is evaluated equally, whether they’re a freshman or a senior. Golf is a numbers sport, and the numbers don’t lie. I don’t look at what grade level they are. I look at what level they’re at in their golf game.”
— Montana Sports Information