Arkansas' Matthews in contention entering final day at Chenal

By: Jeff Krupsaw, Special to the Democrat-Gazette
Published: Wednesday, June 17, 2020
Brooke Matthews of Arkansas walks Tuesday, May 21, 2019, to the 16th green during her match with Letizia Bagnoli of Wake Forest in the Women's NCAA Golf Championship at Blessings Golf Club in Johnson.
Photo by Andy Shupe
Brooke Matthews of Arkansas walks Tuesday, May 21, 2019, to the 16th green during her match with Letizia Bagnoli of Wake Forest in the Women's NCAA Golf Championship at Blessings Golf Club in Johnson.

— Today’s final round of the Arkansas State Golf Association’s Women’s Stroke Play Championship will have a match play feel to it with a little SEC seasoning sprinkled in.

It should be no surprise that Brooke Matthews, a University of Arkansas golfer from Rogers, and University of Kentucky golfer Casey Ott from Conway, topped the leaderboard Tuesday at Chenal Country Club with 4-under-par rounds of 68 on the Founders Course.

They will start the final round six shots ahead of their nearest pursuer, Katelyn Dunstan, when they tee off at 10:12 this morning.

Matthews, a redshirt sophomore, and Ott, a sophomore, have been knocking heads, in a mostly friendly way, on Arkansas golf courses for the better part of a decade, competing in high school for three years and in events sponsored by the ASGA for much longer.

“It will be fun,” said Ott, a two-time state Overall champion at Conway. “Hopefully me and Brooke can go as low as we can, and whoever plays the best wins.

“If I shoot 68 and I lose to Brooke, I’m happy for Brooke. It’s fun to go against Brooke. Anything that happens, it will be fun.”

Matthews, standing beside her longtime rival, also said fun will be the order of the day, especially after three months of tournament inactivity because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“We’re just happy we’re having this tournament,” Matthews said after a round that included 3 birdies, an eagle and 1 bogey on a Chenal Course that played to 5,998 yards. “We’re just happy to be here.”

Matthews and Ott are both eligible to repeat their sophomore seasons, if they choose, after the sports world grinded to a halt in mid-March.

“It was definitely shocking,” Matthews said of the impact of the pandemic. “It was disappointing, but obviously something bigger than golf was going on. Everybody had to miss out on stuff.”

Matthews said she has kept her game sharp by playing at her home course, The Blessings Golf Club in Fayetteville.

“I was one of the fortunate ones,” said Matthews, whose round included an eagle at the the 491-yard par-5 ninth hole. “I got to keep playing.”

Ott said she stayed in Lexington playing local courses, until returning home to Conway and Centennial Valley Golf and Country Club.

She returned to tournament play two weeks ago in Dallas, while this is Matthews’ return to competition.

Both players said the atmosphere created by the ASGA on Tuesday was one that promoted comfort for the players, who played in threesomes but drove their own carts with no passengers.

Each player was afforded two family members to watch, but they had to walk.

No masks were worn on the course, and the players were provided with sanitary handwash and masks at the scoring table off the 18th green.

“We were in our own cart, couldn’t touch the pin,” Matthews said. “We were pretty socially distant as we could be.”

Ott said not being able to take out the flag was the only uncomfortable aspect of playing pandemic golf.

“I’m not super used to that,” Ott said. “I feel like I lost a couple of shots here and there.”

Both players said they were comfortable in today’s pairing, which is not surprising considering they competed against each other from 2014-16 in high school, often finishing with a stroke or two of each other in the 7A state tournaments and Overall events.

Matthews shrugged when asked if the Razorbacks-Wildcats loyalties will increase the level of competition.

“It’s just going to be fun,” she said.

Ott said the two are friends as well as competitors.

“We’ve gone back and forth with some stuff in the past,” Ott said. “So, I’m excited to get to play against her again.”

Matthews, Ott and Dunstan will be joined by Josie Roberson (75), Gracen Blount (75), Bailey Dunstan (76) in the Championship Division’s first flight, along with Lilly Thomas (78) of Bentonville and Nora Phillips (78).

Seven other competitors will be grouped in the second flight, led by Anna Kate Nichols, Julie Oxendine and Sydney Staton, who each shot 7-over rounds of 79.

Nichols, an incoming freshman at Pulaski Academy, is the youngest competitor in the championship division, and she said she used Tuesday’s round with Matthews as an opportunity to learn.

“I just watched her, watched what she was doing, because she’s somebody I look up to,” said Nichols, who aspires to play college golf at Arkansas.

Nichols’ father, Joey, one of the most accomplished amateur players the state has produced, said he was proud of the way his daughter handled herself.

“You can say don’t be nervous, but when you’re playing against college girls,” Nichols said. “I was proud of her, how she played, things she did.”

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