The best tournament round in Purdue Fort Wayne women's golf history was almost the last round of senior Linnzie Richner's Mastodons career.
In the second round of the Benbow Invitational in Jacksonville, Florida on March 10, with her grandparents in attendance, Richner shot a 2-under 69, the best single-round score ever for PFW and the first time Richner had broken 70 in a tournament. Shooting in the 60s wasn't a completely unfamiliar experience for the Nappanee native – she'd had a 64 in a qualifying round earlier in the year – and she played with confidence after a first-round 80.
“It sounds dumb, but it was just simple golf,” Richner said of her sub-70 round. “I didn't do anything crazy, I didn't make any eagles, I didn't stick it super close, I was making pars, I was getting up and down. I was doing the things that I knew I was capable of, but I had the confidence to back it up. ... I didn't put too much pressure on any swing, because a putt is worth the same as a drive, so if I had a drive go off line, I was thinking to myself, 'I still have X many shots to put it in the hole.'”
Just one day after Richner's record-breaking round, however, the NCAA canceled the rest of the rest of the season because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Though she'd heard of athletic departments canceling events because of the virus before the season was called off, Richner was hoping to be able to play at least one more tournament, so she would be able to savor the last few holes and have some closure.
Richner, who says she is not typically an emotional person, cried when PFW coach Matt Zedrick told her, the team's lone senior, that there would be no next tournament that season. Tears fell again on the plane ride home to Fort Wayne, when the flight attendant announced to the passengers that Richner had broken the PFW scoring record.
“I was so hungry and I was so prepared, I was just so excited to go down (to the next tournament, the Bobby Nichols Intercollegiate in Tennessee) and shoot an even lower score” and beat 69, Richner said. “Everybody was saying, 'Congrats, at least you went out with a bang.' And I was thinking to myself, 'Yeah, I went out with a bang, but I was hoping to do something better than that in continuing the spring season.”
Richner finished out her classes and graduated in May with a degree in biology. She was ready to enter the real world, but before she could, the NCAA provided her with a second chance at a final season, giving spring-sport athletes whose seasons were cut short an extra year of eligibility.
That left Richner with a choice. She could move on, as she'd always planned to do after four years, or she could decide to come back for one more season with the Mastodons. One of many factors in her decision was PFW's switch from its long-time home in the Summit League to the Horizon League. Since the Mastodons often beat Horizon League teams in tournaments during her PFW career, she wanted a chance at a conference title.
Zedrick was thinking along the same lines. Although the fifth-year PFW coach wanted Richner to do what she thought was in her best interests, he hoped to have one of his team's most experienced players and a proven leader back for another season.
“If we play some good golf next year, we'll have a chance of competing for a Horizon League championship,” Zedrick said. “For her, part of the conversation was, if you come back that's just going to make our chances that much better. She's been a part of history in this program, so it'd be pretty cool to have her name be part of our first conference championship.”
Richner originally wanted her to parents to more or less make a decision for her – “It was such a hard decision I wanted someone to tell me what do,” she said.
Instead her parents told her that, at 22 years old, she was mature enough to make the decision for herself. After several phone conversations with Zedrick and discussions with her academic advisors, Richner decided to come back for one final season, a decision she was proud to have made on her own.
“(My parents) were sitting on the back porch talking and I just walked up there and I said, 'Well, it looks like I'm going back to school,'” Richner said. “It was really cool to say, 'I did this on my own.' I didn't have my parents saying, 'Oh, well what about this?' and then me giving into them. It was a lot of what I want.”
She will turn her psychology minor into a major and take the classes necessary this year to complete that degree, as well, while simultaneously trying to lower her stroke average for the fifth consecutive year. Last season, she finished with a 78.53 average.
“I'll have work and I'll have adult responsibilities the rest of my life and I'm only going to have this opportunity (for one more season) once,” Richner said of the rationale behind her decision. “This is an amazing opportunity for anybody. And to have another year of just playing golf, hanging out with my friends, really not having – because reality, I have responsibilities, but nothing like the real world.
“I don't want to live with regret. I don't want to be 45 and thinking, 'Man, I wonder what would have happened if I did a fifth year.' I think that was the little extra oomph that said, 'Yeah, let's do it.'”
When she called Zedrick over FaceTime and told him of her decision, he was ecstatic. The coach's wife was walking through the room at the time and the pair congratulated Richner together.
“Every time (Richner) was like, 'Hey, can we talk about this?' I was fairly anxious that it would be, 'Coach I don't think coming back is going to be right for me,' which I told her all along, if it wasn't right for her I totally understood,” Zedrick said. “But (when she said she was coming back) I was through the roof. ... Our program's a big family, so it was cool.”
Now that Richner has a chance to follow up her 69 in competition, her main individual goal is to break her own record. As for team goals, she is excited about the possibility of taking the Horizon League by storm in the Mastodons' first go-round in the conference.
“Our goal is to really tear it up in the Horizon League and show these teams in our first year coming in that this is what we're all about,” she said. “We're not going to step aside.”