Illini women’s golf combines familiar, fresh faces ahead of 2021 season

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Photo Courtesy of Illini Athletics

Senior Crystal Wang hits the golf ball during a round of golf on May 12. Crystal Wang was the only one to play last season during COVID-19.

By Carson Gourdie, Staff Writer

With three players named to the Big Ten preseason watch list, Illinois looks to improve upon last year’s COVID-riddled year with its balance of both young and familiar talent. 

“It’s a great mix; our more experienced players can provide guidance to our new players,” said head coach Renee Slone. “The new players are always able to inject different energy and perspective, which we greatly appreciate.”

Although Illinois will be sporting a smaller roster than usual — six golfers instead of the usual eight — half the golfers have been named to the Big Ten watch list. However, only one of them, senior Crystal Wang, saw any action last season, as the other two —  junior Siyan Chen and senior Kornkamol Sukaree — opted out because of COVID-19 related issues.

Wang finished with the second-best scoring average last season, averaging 73.24 strokes each round. Wang, who earned All-Big Ten Second-Team honors last season, believes she has unfinished business when it comes to the green. 

“It’s not that I don’t like my current short game, it’s just that the harder shots I normally don’t get,” Wang said. “I’m not as comfortable. It’s hard for me to read those little breaks. Just making one putt can make up 10 spots on the leaderboard.”

Chen and Sukaree, the others named to the watch list, bring a calm demeanor back to the club, Wang says. While she tried hard to stay in contact with them overseas last season with regular Zoom meetings, Wang is excited to have her teammates back in Champaign. 

“Having them back feels like a full team again,” Wang said. 

Despite being a junior, Chen has competed in only seven events in college, averaging 73.57 strokes a round. Sukaree has a longer track record as she played almost two full seasons before the pandemic struck. 

Sukaree had found consistent success in the conference, as she was named to the All-Big Ten first team as a freshman and to the second team as a sophomore. Sukaree’s sophomore season was the sixth-best statistically in Illini history, as she finished with a scoring average of 72.78. 

Illinois is bringing two fresh faces to the program with the addition of freshmen Lexanne Hamala and Alise Knudson. Hamala, who hails from Tennessee, excelled nationally during high school, as she ranked as high as No.12 on the National Junior Golf Scoreboard. Knudson has her highlights as well, as the Dallas native registered a hole-in-one to qualify for the 2021 Junior PGA Championship. 

Despite being a smaller team, Slone doesn’t view it as a disadvantage. With six players, it gives everyone a chance to step up and make an immediate impact for the program. With national and international experience on the roster, Slone just wants the opportunity to play a full season and improve each week in the conference. 

As Slone oversees the whole program, Wang feels an obligation to look out for the freshmen. Aside from showing up to practice and working out on time, Wang wants to provide an immediate outlet for the newcomers by always being available. So far, Wang has taken the two out to restaurants around campus and hung out with them on multiple occasions.

“It’s important to show by example,” Wang said. “I want to try my best and set a good example for the team.”

Illinois opens on Sept. 13 in Michigan, as they will compete in the Wolverine Invitational in Ann Arbor.

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