Hugging the coast of the North Atlantic, Royal Portrush Golf Club covers over 7,000 yards of fescue at the very top of Ireland. Beneath the ruins of a 13th-century castle, the distinctly Irish links welcomed the best golfers in the world to try and conquer the undulating hills and beaches at the 2019 Open Championship. In other words, Portrush doesn’t have much in common with Central Oklahoma.
But that’s where Niamh McSherry found a little slice of home on the final day of last month’s Cowgirl Classic, firing six birdies to clinch a top-10 finish at the last tournament of 2020 for K-State Women’s Golf.
“Going into the last day, I knew the conditions were going to be like they are at home 95% of the time,” McSherry said. “That was going to affect a lot of girls on the golf course. I knew, for me, this is what I was going to be comfortable with. That gave me a chance to move up the leaderboard.”
Only three players in the field shot par or better on the final day of the tournament, driving into gusty winds that made it a struggle just to reach the green in regulation. That’s when McSherry made her move. Her six-birdie afternoon helped K-State end the fall season with a top-four team finish. It also proved to be the bounce-back performance McSherry needed after a challenging summer that put her success on the golf course in perspective.
The senior came into 2020 on the heels of a career season, when she led the Wildcats in stroke average (74.16) – one of the top-five annual averages in program history – and won the 2019 Marilynn Smith Invitational. In her first tournament of the fall, McSherry had to settle for a top-40 finish. It was her first competition with the K-State Women’s Golf team since the spring season was cut short due to COVID-19.
“You’ve got to go out there and you’ve got to get started early. I think we’re very fortunate that we got to play twice in the fall because I know a lot of teams didn’t,” McSherry said. “I was proud of the team for using those tournaments as an opportunity, not to crumble under pressure, but to strive.”
In between her spring and fall season, McSherry returned to her hometown of Lurgan, where COVID-19 put the country on lockdown and kept her off a golf course for months. Northern Irish courses were closed until the end of May, which forced McSherry to get creative in keeping her game sharp during the spring. She said that she was mostly just working on her short game, with chipping and putting all she could do during the lockdown. Of course, there are some advantages to playing a sport like golf in a pandemic.
“When we could get on the golf course, even if it was just by ourselves, it was nice to have some normality through the most un-normal time I’ve ever seen in my life,” she said. “It was a comfort for me to feel like, ‘OK, this is hard, but I can go do this for four hours and feel like I’m doing something I’ve done for such a long time.’ I think that was good for me.”
Most of the golf courses in Lurgan are spread out across rolling parkland and dotted with trees – more Augusta than St. Andrew’s – and provided McSherry with a place to train.
She actually made it out to Portrush for a day of the Open Championship back in 2019, where the wind and deep bunkers on the links course create a very different golfing experience. McSherry said she’s even played the course a few times, navigating the same challenges as some of the best golfers in the world.
“It looked very different with all of the stands in place, I’m not sure I would have liked to have played it as tight as they did,” she said. “It was special to see how they played it compared to how we played it. It was awesome that Northern Ireland got the opportunity to host that.”
After a summer spent golfing back home, McSherry returned to Kansas State for a season that wasn’t even guaranteed to happen. Even with a full slate of spring tournaments on the schedule in 2021, the fall would provide just two opportunities for McSherry to represent K-State in Big 12 competition.
“With Reid [Isaac] and I being seniors and doing this together, I’ve seen both of us push each other to improve,” she said. “I think every part of my game has gotten me to those top-10 finishes that I didn’t really see myself achieving when I was a freshman.”
Her latest standout performance gives McSherry plenty of momentum for the spring season, when K-State will look to vault into team contention for the NCAA Regional tournament. On her home course at Colbert Hills, McSherry has already bagged more than a few lasting memories during her time as a Wildcat. With the first two tournaments of her senior season out of the way, the only thing left to do, as McSherry would say, is to keep striving.
“Getting to Regionals would be so special. I watched the video of the team doing it the spring before I came here and seeing that joy and excitement just shows how important it is,” she said. “I would love if we could finish it like that.”
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