She's appeared in the lineup fewer than 10 times during her Penn career, but sophomore women's golfer Natalie Cao is already writing remarkable results on the Quakers' scorecards.
Through just a season and change so far with the Penn women's golf team, Cao has become a top-performing player for the Quakers, finishing with the lowest score on the team at the Ivy League Championships in April, and the second-lowest score to start this season at the Yale Fall Intercollegiate.
The journey of becoming this capable of a golfer began at age 5, when she accompanied her dad to the local golf course.
“My dad played golf, and he would always bring me on the course with him, and he’d let me hit around with a kiddy club,” Cao said. “I honestly started because it looked easy, but I obviously realized very quickly that it was not the case.”
Her father was keen to see Cao succeed in the sport throughout her childhood, guiding her on a path to Penn. When she reached high school, the Sugar Land, Texas native began playing competitively, and from there, realized that she wanted a future that lay in college golf.
Cao joined the Southern Texas Professional Golf Organization, where she started to play in regional tournaments and eventually progressed to the national stage.
During recruiting in high school, Cao was immediately drawn to Penn, given her fondness for its athletic-academic balance. So she took initiative to make sure that Penn was aware of her performance.
“Penn was always one of my top schools because I wanted to play at D1 level, but also get a really good education, so Penn fit that balance,” she said. “I sent an email to coach [Mark] Anderson and requested him to keep track of my results and watch me play, and by junior summer, I was recruited.”
Anderson followed Cao’s journey through high school and was impressed by her consistency, a trait that he notices her carrying on as a Quaker.
“Natalie is one of our most consistent performers on the court. She’s also one of the funniest on our team, so she keeps things loose in the locker room,” he said. “She’s a really solid ball-striker, definitely driving it longer. Every tournament, she’s solid, and even if she’s a little off, she still puts up a good score for us.”
Anderson is bullish on Cao's level of performance, as the sophomore remains analytical about her game, searching for areas where she can still further improve.
“I think I’m practicing a lot more than I did in high school,” Cao said. “I improved on my long game a lot more, but almost as a result of that, my short game has fallen off a little. I was hitting a lot of greens and making a lot of pars, so I had to chip or pitch a lot less.”
Beyond the course, Cao enjoys the opportunity to be a part of a cohesive team after years of more isolated play. Now a sophomore, Cao still looks up to senior captains Susan Xiao and Selina Li, while also helping to guide along the two freshmen on the team who are still acclimating to collegiate golf and their freshman year at Penn.
Being a student-athlete also presents the challenge of finding the balance between work and fun, a practice that Cao seems to have slipped right into.
“She’s been able to maintain her level, which is not easy,” Anderson said. “Going from playing every day as a junior player, and then coming into college, there’s a lot more responsibility with balancing academics and a social life so I’m very proud of her in that aspect.”