EAST LANSING, Mich. —Tristyn Nowlin started her Illinois career firing a 4-under 67 in the opening round of the Mercedes-Benz Collegiate Championship on Sept. 12, 2016. That mark has stood as the Illini junior's best ever score since and through nearly 30 tournaments.
More than 21 / 2 years after setting that personal best, Nowlin matched it in the pressure cooker environment of the final round of the NCAA East Lansing Regional. Her 5-under 67 moved her into 10th place individually and helped Illinois finish fifth and advance to the NCAA championships for the first time in program history.
"Honestly, I wasn't even thinking about the number until I finished out on 18," Nowlin said. "To do this — especially on a day like (Wednesday) under the pressure to make the cut — it feels awesome. I'm very grateful."
Nowlin's round was the best of the day for any golfer in the regional field. It was also the difference between Illinois reaching the NCAA championships and just missing out for a second consecutive season. The gap between fifth-place Illinois and seventh-place Michigan State was just four strokes.
"Those eraser rounds, those are the difference makers," Illinois coach Renee Slone said. "She's been close. (Tuesday) she gave herself a lot of opportunities and was very frustrated with her putting. Just didn't feel comfortable over the ball and was burning the edges. Obviously, (Wednesday) had that dialed in and felt much more comfortable, and that led to some really good things."
Slone spent most of Wednesday's final round unsure if Illinois would have enough "good things" to make the cut. Nowlin was the only Illini to finish under par for the day, with freshman Kornkamol Sukaree and senior Bing Singhsumalee posting matching 2-over 74s as the next lowest scores.
"Honestly, I did not know where things stood at all coming down 18," Slone said. She was following Sukaree, the last Illini on the course who ultimately finished tied for sixth individually.
"I'm not a scoreboard watcher," Slone continued. "Based on what I was seeing, I really wasn't sure what was taking place. Needless to say, when another coach came over to say congratulations in the middle of the 18th fairway I was actually a little surprised."
The rest of the Illini were around the 18th green. That's where they celebrated when Singhsumalee chipped in for par and also where Sukaree finished birdie-par to move Illinois into fifth.
"It really set in when Bing chipped in on 18," Nowlin said. "We knew it was kind of close. She chipped in for par, and we all just screamed at the top of our lungs. We couldn't control it."
Advancing to the NCAA championships was a bit of redemption for the veteran Illini.
Nowlin and Singhsumalee were on last year's team that finished seventh in the regional round and just two strokes out of sixth place and qualifying.
"It's been years in the making," Slone said. "Years. Not just this season, but many, many years to build on things and move the program forward and to put us into the position to have the opportunity.
"There was definitely a lot of energy. A lot of emotion and feelings of, 'Hey, we've put together a solid round today and found a way to get it done.' Some of it wasn't the best, but we found a way to get it done."
Not playing their best and still advancing to the NCAA championships set for May 17-22 at Blessings Golf Club in Fayetteville, Ark., means the Illini have room to improve. Nowlin said the next few days of practice would be constructive.
Those practices could only sharpen Nowlin's focus. Slone raved about the Richmond, Ky., native's "presence" on the course Wednesday.
"She just went about her routine," Slone said. "Her commitment for (Wednesday) was presence, and she did an excellent job of that. Very, very present oriented — focusing only on the shot at hand. Didn't get ahead of herself."
Playing one shot at a time was easier to do, Nowlin said, because most of them were good. She shot a 3-under 33 on the front nine and added two more birdies during the final nine holes.
"I was totally in the moment," Nowlin said. "I never got ahead of myself or got in my own way. I just watched the ball and then went to find it and hit it again. ... It is easier if you're putting a good round together."