Welander Breaks Through With Illinois Open Title; Shooting for Big Year with Princeton Women's Golf
By Bill Alden
Annika Welander picked a good time to post her first-ever round under 70 in tournament play. Playing at the Illinois Women's Open last month, Welander, a sophomore golf star for Princeton University, carded a 67 in the second round to take the lead in the tournament heading into the third and final round.
Undeterred by the fact that she was competing against a field that included many seasoned professional players, Welander coolly closed the deal as she shot a final round 70 to finish with a 54-hole total of 9-under 207 and a one-stroke win over longtime pro Allison Finney.
In reflecting on her stunning win, the 19-year-old Welander said that she had plenty of confidence coming into the event which was held at Mistwood Golf Course in Romeoville, Ill.
"I've been hitting the ball well," said Welander, a native of Winnetka, Ill. "The week before I was at the U.S. Public Links tournament and I told my coach Joe Bosco that I could win the women's open. I was comfortable with my putting and I was hitting the ball in the middle of the fairway."
After starting the tournament with a 2-under 70, Welander took her game to a higher level a day later.
"The first day was not great but I felt good," recalled Welander, who helped the Princeton women's team with the Ivy League title this past spring. "Then in the second round I shot 67; that was a major breakthrough. I chipped for an eagle on a par 5, that was big."
As Welander stepped to the first tee for the final round, she felt she had nothing to lose. "I had two thoughts," asserted Welander. "I knew I had the capability to win, I had practiced enough to beat the other players. I wasn't too nervous. Even if I didn't win, I had already done so well. It was a nice mindset to have coming into the round."
That calm approach helped Welander weather the storm as Finney got off to a hot start. "She birdied the first two holes," remembered Welander. "I birdied the third and fourth and that evened things up. She three-putted a hole and all of a sudden I was in the lead."
With the title nearly in her grasp, Welander admitted that she started feeling butterflies. "I got up by two and then I did get a little nervous," said Welander. "I had to go up and down on seven or eight holes."
On the 18th hole, Welander underwent an emotional rollercoaster as she clinched victory. "I was standing on the last hole; I had just missed a birdie putt and she had a ten-footer for a birdie," said Welander, whose final score of 207 broke the previous tournament record of 211. "I was one-up so I thought she would make it and we would have a playoff. She missed the putt and I got all excited. I was surprised; I couldn't believe that I had won."
Welander is certainly excited as she looks forward to her second season at Princeton, which starts on September 17-18 with the Mary Fossum Invitational hosted by Michigan State University.
"Going into junior events, you can win if you play your game," said Welander, who has posted seven wins in regional tournaments together with eight second-place finishes. "In the Open, I knew I had to play lights out to have a chance. It makes me excited. I'm ready for the Michigan State tournament. There is no reason I can't win."
For Welander, her freshman year was an eye-opener. "College golf is so different," explained Welander, who finished 23rd in the individual standings in the Ivy League tournament.
"You have to juggle things. You have the golf side, the academic pressure, and the social stuff. It's exciting to travel but you have to do your work before you get on the bus or plane."
In adjusting to the college level, Welander received valuable assistance from the team's veterans and Princeton head coach Eric Stein. "The seniors were really fun," said Welander, referring to the now-graduated trio of Avery Kiser, Taryn Haladay, and Meg Nakamura.
"They were always joking around. They had figured out the right balance between golf, school, and social life. Coach Stein focuses on keeping us mentally ready. He understands our situation at Princeton and is concerned about us as a whole person. If you have a paper due, he will let you skip practice and tell you to come in and work harder the next day."
Balancing those responsibilities helped Welander develop a mental toughness on the course. "I had to learn how to play under extreme conditions," asserted Welander.
"It was 40 degrees at the Georgetown tournament with winds gusting 20-25 m.p.h. It's not like summer events, where you can go to the range for three hours to practice beforehand. At college, you learn you have to play at a tournament even if your swing is not down pat."
Based on how Welander performed in winning the Illinois title, she should be enjoying some extreme success over the rest of her college career.