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Time to make up my mind

2006_ncaa_golf SUNRIVER, ORE.—Ten days since the end of regionals. Nearly 2,500 miles flying across the country to get to the Crosswater Course at Sunriver Resort. Six hours here watching teams play their final practice round. You’d think I’d have had more than enough time to figure out who I like to win the 109th NCAA Men’s Golf Championship. Yet I still am not sure what team to pick, even as I hit the return button to end this paragraph.

You see the problem is I’ve got two schools that I’m eyeing, two that standout in my mind for various reasons. It’s the story of my life, really. I often have no trouble narrowing my decisions down to two but struggle with making the final cut. In college I couldn’t decide between communications and political science, and never made the actually choice as I double majored. At restaurants, I typically find two meals to my liking. When the waiter/waitress asks, I usually say the one that comes to mind first.

But how to break my mental deadlock between Georgia, the defending national champions and top-ranked team throughout the 2005-06 college season, and Oklahoma State, a perennial power coming off its two best performances of the year? Think it’s not a dilemma? Consider the arguments for each team:

Three reasons why Georgia will win:
• All five players legitimately can win the individual title.
   Not to be flippant about this, but I don’t think there is any other squad of the 30 in the field here this week that can honestly say that. All five guys have 73.0 stroke averages or better, with SEC player of the year Chris Kirk (one win, six top-fives) leading the way with a 71.0 mark. Freshman Brian Harman (one win, five top-10s) was co-medalist here at the Ping Preview last September. Junior Brendon Todd (three top-fives) and senior Richard Scott (two top-10s) are back from last year’s championship team along with senior Kevin Kisner (four top-10s), the heart and soul of the squad. Suffice it to say, this team has a lot of bite to go with its bark.

• There is no more relaxed group of players than the Bulldogs
   This stems from the guy at the top, coach Chris Haack, who has developed Georgia into a great program by giving his players the resources they need to succeed and then not getting in their way while they’re doing so. Watching the team play this afternoon, you would think they were getting ready for the season opener and not the finale, seeing how loose they were. It’s been more than 20 years since a school repeated as NCAA champs (Houston in 1984-85) and even in the face of potentially making history, the Bulldogs don’t seem to be feeling any pressure.

• They get off to a good start
   With the exception of the Hall of Fame Invitational, where they tied for eighth (the only time they finished outside the top-four all year), the Bulldogs have played solid right from the start in every tournament. Tossing out the HofF, their first-round scoring average is 286.4. In other words, Georgia doesn’t wait until other teams make mistakes but applies pressure early, forcing other teams to respond. It’s an aggressive way to play but also a smart one.

Golf World ranking:
Team scoring average:

Three reasons why Oklahoma State will win:
• The debacle of 2005
   The Cowboys were the nation’s top-ranked team and the favorites to win the school’s 10th NCAA title when they arrived at Caves Valley outside Baltimore a year ago, only to put on a performance in finishing 15th place that was disastrous at best and cause for therapy at worst. Yet speaking to the three players in this week’s line-up who were there a year ago, each of them says that the experience has made them stronger. “It was a great lesson in the fact that you can’t ever take anything for granted in this game,” says sophomore Pablo Martin, the top-ranked player in the country and a favorite to win the individual title here this week. While never discussing the 2005 NCAAs in a team meeting this year, getting back and avenging their showing has been on this team’s mind.

• Late season success from Jonathan Moore and Robinson
   No matter how many wins your team has, if its not playing well come May and June you’re in for trouble. Suffice it to say, Oklahoma State, making its 60th appearance at nationals, is playing very well of late, particular redshirt freshman Jonathan Moore and Robinson. In Moore’s last six starts he has two runner-up finishes and two wins (The Maxwell and the Central Regional). In his last six rounds he hasn’t shot worse than 69, a stat made even more impressive by the fact that the Central Regional conditions were hardly ideal. Meanwhile, Robinson (named today the winner of the 2006 Byron Nelson Award) has been the only one in shouting distance of Moore of late, finishing second to him at The Maxwell and Central Regional. In Robinson’s last seven rounds, he has shot two 66s and two 68s. It’s no coincidence that Robinson’s scores have improved since the school year ended and he has been able to concentrate solely on golf after a difficult workload of graduate school classes in the OSU MBA program.

• New sheriff in town
   You can hardly punch holes in a resume that includes winning eight national championships and having more than 100 All-Americans. But with Mike Holder having retired as the Cowboys head coach to become the school’s athletic director, and Mike McGraw stepping in, there are those who will tell you (read: rival coaches) that the Cowboys are in better shape for nationals. Specifically, the pressure Holder sometimes exerted on his teams to win might have actually caused them to stumble. McGraw, meanwhile, is likely to ease the squeeze, so to speak.

Oklahoma State
Golf World ranking:
Team scoring average:

In the interest of full disclosure, there aren't just two teams in the field here this week. There are other schools with legitimate hopes of winning: most notably Florida, UCLA, Georgia Tech and Arizona State. There good dark horses too: UNLV and BYU both comes to mind since they play this course each year in the Mountain West Conference championship. But as I said earlier, I don't have a problem getting down to two choices usually.

So who to go with? Georgia has a 5-1 edge head-to-head with Oklahoma State this season, but the Cowboys haven’t gone six years between championships since 1976. The rough isn’t really up on this 7,630-yard, par-72 track and snow that fell last week has made the greens a little slow and bumpy, meaning that a school might be able to have a poor putting performance and still be in the hunt.

Seriously, there doesn’t seem to be any intangibles to separate the teams.

So I’m going to act like I’m in that restaurant and the waiter has just arrived.

"Sir, who do you like?"

Give me … Oklahoma State, to win by two shots. I just have to go with the solid play of late … as one coach told me today, “We thought we were playing well at the Central Regional and the Cowboys lapped us by 30.” It will carryover here in Oregon.

Of course ask me in 15 minutes, and I might tell you Georgia.

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News & Tours

This and that from Women's nationals

SOMEWHERE BETWEEN COLUMBUS, OHIO AND LAGUARDIA AIRPORT—Is it OK to say I told you so? Yes, maybe I didn’t go out on a real long limb picking Duke to win the NCAA Women’s Championship, but I did pick the winner, which ought to count for something, shouldn’t it? (Never mind about my pick for the individual title … you’ll get them next time Jane Park, I can feel it.)

What the Blue Devils demonstrated during their four day run at Ohio State’s Scarlet Course wasn’t necessarily superior talent inside the ropes but rather superior talent in between their ears. There is no team with the mental tenacity of the squad from Durham, N.C. That’s not to say that they don’t have exceptional golfers; freshman Amanda Blumenherst wasn’t named national player of the year last night at the Division I Awards banquet for nothing (for other winners, click here). It’s just that when these players aren’t striking the ball well on a particular day, they have the fortitude to grind out a good score.

Bottom line: Duke’s fab five was the most relaxed team of any in the field this past week, guided beautifully by senior Liz Janangelo, the most laid back college golfer I can ever remember seeing. “It’s like we were just playing any old tournament,” said Duke sophomore Jennifer Pandolfi amidst all the celebrating yesterday, when Duke became the first repeat champion since 1998 with a 10-shot victory over USC.

It’s more than you can say for some top-ranked schools (sorry UCLA, but you know who I’m talking about). Without putting undo pressure on themselves, the Blue Devils took care of business, a testament to what Janangelo might have learned her freshman and sophomore years at nationals. It was then that an uptight Duke team, heavy favorites both years, were unable to close the deal. I don’t think you can give Janangelo enough credit in helping prepare this team for victory this week. College golf is going to miss her.

So what were my other impressions from nationals? They’re kind of varied and a little off beat, so bear with me.

• Standing next to the 18th green when Arkansas senior Amanda McCurdy holed the final putt of her college career, and then couldn’t face her teammates because she knew she would break down was as heart breaking for spectators to watch as it was for McCurdy to experience. This is a woman who could be the scrappiest player we’ve seen in college golf the last five years. Maybe the classiest too.

“It’s been a ride,” said the honorable mention All-American in between tears. “I know that I haven’t played my best golf yet but I’m going to fight every time I’m out there.”

McCurdy’s immediate plans are to hope to receive a phone call later this week from Martha Luigs, head of the selection committee for the U.S. Curtis Cup team. Captain Carol Semple Thompson spent time watching McCurdy this week and could use a player like her later this summer at Bandon Dunes. And after that, it's giving pro golf a try.

Amanda Blumenherst incredible freshman season is capped with a national championship and national player of the year honors. I know she told me flat out that she’ll be in Durham, N.C., for four years, but you have to wonder if she repeats what she did this past season how long it really will be before she turns professional?

• She might not have been the USC player you thought would win the individual title, but Trojan sophomore Dewi-Claire Schreefel pulled out a mighty clutch performance down the stretch Friday to claim medalist honors. Of course the three birdies over the final five holes, which secured her 69 in the final round and two-under 286 total were huge, but the play that will go unheralded will be her up and down for par out of the greenside bunker on the par-4 15th. A great chip to three feet, and a never-off-line putt kept the momentum she had built the two previous holes. Once again, it’s not as much about your physical skills … all the players out there could execute the shot Schreefel pulled off. But how many could pull it off when everything was one the line?

• The Women’s Golf Committee was dealt a kind blow when they were able to get the final round of the championship done Friday afternoon despite a 56-minute rain delay. More to the point, it got lucky. I understand that the championship has Saturday as a extra day in case rain should interrupt the tournament, but they should have at least moved tee times up an hour on Friday when the committee knew that weather might affect the championship. Had one more storm come through, chances are we would have all been back this morning to finish just a couple hours, an outcome nobody would have been happy with.

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News & Tours

Standing out among the crowd

Images COLUMBUS, OHIO—I am a stranger in a strange land. Or at least in enemy territory as I cover the NCAA Women’s Championship hosted by The Ohio State University. As a University of Michigan graduate walking around campus the last few days, digesting more than my daily recommended allowance of Scarlet and Gray, I had begun looking over my shoulder a bit out of fear somebody might “discover” my identify.

Images1 You think I’m joking, don’t you? Actually, I’m quite serious, particularly after I got “outed” the other night at the Apple Store in Columbus. Long story short, I fried the plug to my computer and was in a panic to replace it before my battery ran out of juice. While purchasing a new plug, I used a Visa credit card of mine. I hadn’t thought twice when I handed it over, but then heard the clerk say, “Oh, we don’t take those here.” Now I had heard of stores not taking American Express cards before, but not Visa cards. “You don’t take Visa?” I responded. The gentleman replied: “Not Visa cards with the picture of Michigan Stadium on them.”

OK, so I’m a pretty dedicated Wolverine with a Visa card from my alumni association. And I also understand the nature of the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry quite well, thank you, considering that almost a dozen of my family members (including my parents) graduated from OSU. It’s why I laughed at the clerk's comments, maybe for as long as 10 seconds. Trouble was, the clerk wasn’t laughing with me. My smile vanished and in an awkward state I asked if he “really” needs a new card. Rolling his eyes, he slid my Visa through the machine, as if it say, “I’ll do this once, but please refrain from shopping here again unless you want me calling security.”

At any rate, it got me thinking about what other people’s reactions to the card might be. Were all OSU fans so hostile to Michigan folks, even when they were spending money in their establishments? I went to a souvenir store yesterday to buy my dad a couple OSU-logoed things for father’s day. When I went to pay for them, I decided to use my Visa card again to see what the reaction was.

“So how are you guys going to be this fall?” the clerk asked in a friendly and genuine tone as he rang up my purchase. Unspoken of course was that he was referring to football. “We’ll be better than last year, but I think you might still have our number,” I said. A smile came on his face, as it did the Columbus police officer who was also in the shop and overhearing our conversation. “Are the people in Ann Arbor upset that we’re beating you so much lately?” asked the cop. “I think so … it’s starting to bother the alumni,” I replied. Immediately the grins on their faces grew bigger and in unison, as if they were on some synchronized smiling team. Outnumbered and outranked, I kindly signed my credit card slip and left.

So then this morning before the third-round leaders played in the afternoon, I decide to go to the Jack Nicklaus Museum, which is on campus, a block away from the basketball arena. (Quick aside, if you’re even a casual golf fan, and ever in Columbus, you need to go see this place. It’s got some great memorabilia and chronicles the Golden Bear’s career in a classy, inspiring way.) I pull out my Visa card again to pay the $10 admission, only to have the woman behind the counter crack a wide smile. “Have you used this anywhere else around here?” she asked. “Yeah, and I’ve gotten a few weird comebacks. What’s yours going to be?” The woman then proceeded to look to her right and look to her left as if to see if anybody was overhearing our conversation (forget the fact that I saw only one other person in the museum the entire time I was there). Gingerly, she opened up her purse and then opened a billfold, only to pull out an identical Visa card to my own. “I use it whenever I want to piss somebody off around here. Go Blue!”

Don’t worry Ms. Museum Lady, your secret identity is safe with me.

OK … so how do I then bring this whole thing back to golf you ask? Indulge me if you will, but after leaving the Nicklaus Museum and heading to the Scarlet Course to watch the third round, I saw a golf team that stood out from among the crowd as the Duke women put together a singular performance in shooting a one-under 287, the first sub-par score by any team during the championship. In weather conditions that were the worst of the week (winds steady at 10 to 15 mph, gusting to 25), the Blue Devils started the day three shots back of Arizona State and ended with a 13-shot lead over Southern California. Freshmen Jennie Lee and Amanda Blumenherst shot a 72 and 70, respectively, (to put themselves in a share of second and ninth place) and senior Liz Janangelo fired a 71 to come in T-7. (Pepperdine’s Eileen Vargas remains the individual leader after shooting a 75 Thursday to give her a two-under 214 and a three-shot lead over Lee, Florida’s Sandra Gal, USC’S Dewi Schreefel and Stanford’s Jenny Tangtiphaiboontana.

“They showed why they were ranked No. 1 throughout the season,” said a somewhat shell-shocked ASU coach Melissa Luellen afterward, her team having fallen into a tie for fourth place, 20 strokes back of Duke.

Actually, the day had very much a déjà vu quality to it: a year ago in the NCAAs at Sunriver’s Meadow Course, the Blue Devils were nine shots out of the lead entering the third round, only to take command of the championship with a six-under 278, grabbing an eight-shot lead that they wouldn’t relinquish over the final 18.

Suffice it to say, the same outcome will happen tomorrow. The way Duke is playing, there is almost no chance anybody is going to catch the defending national champions, even if the weather forecast for rain and wind comes true. The Blue Devils, winners of three NCAA titles since 1999, have too much depth and are actually too relaxed to falter nor does it appear that any other team is going to step up and steal the title away. The five Duke starters also are strangers in Columbus, but they’re making themselves feel comfortable.

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News & Tours

When golf is secondary

COLUMBUS, OHIO—The biggest tournament of the season is being held this week at Ohio State’s Scarlet Course and yet a common refrains seems like it’s being repeated by players and coaches here at the NCAA Women’s Championship: golf really is only a game.

Hannah_jun Ask UCLA junior Hannah Jun. Six months removed from a near fatal car accident that left her with a broken neck, the All-American from San Diego was playing again for the Bruins. It wasn’t until March 10 that she got out of the halo brace that allowed her to heal without suffering any long term damage, and not until April 28 that she was finally cleared to hit balls.

“You can’t help but have a different perspective about things,” said Jun after posting a six-over 78 Wednesday to give her a 10-over 154 total, 15 back of leader Eileen Vargas of Pepperdine. “You take each day as a blessing.”

Danelle_perata Ask Arizona State fourth-year junior Danelle Perata. She too was injured in a car accident and underwent spinal fusion surgery last August that was supposed to keep her from playing golf for a year. Yet after six days a week of 2½ hours of physical therapy for two months, she accelerated the recovery process and even played in two tournaments as an individual this spring. Then, only 10 days before the national championship, she got a call from Sun Devils coach Melissa Luellen telling her to be prepared to tee it up as the squad’s No. 5 player.

“Without a doubt this is one of the greatest opportunities I’ve ever been afforded,” said Perata, who has spent 15 minutes in the parking lot each day here warming up her lower back by tossing a medicine ball and a mini-trampoline to complete lower torso exercises. While standing T-115 with an 18-over 162 total, her leadership and enthusiasm has helped ASU claim first place in the team competition, shooting a 10-over 586 to be three shots clear of defending NCAA champions Duke.

Perata vows that she’ll be on of the counting rounds for ASU by week’s end. “I’d do that in return for Coach Luellen taking a chance on me.”

Gaston_jpeg Ask USC women’s coach Andrea Gaston. At 6:15 a.m. yesterday morning she learned that her 84-year-old father, Alfred Gaston, who was flying from the West Coast to attend his first national championship, had suffered a heart attack aboard the plane. Coach Gaston rushed to the local hospital where doctors cleared a blocked artery. She got back to the course just as her team was teeing off in the afternoon. Playing with heavy hearts, the Trojans still took the first-round lead.

Gaston, meanwhile, was back at the hospital until midnight Tuesday evening and back again at the course early this morning, watching her squad remain in the hunt, holding down third place after 36 holes with a 15-over 591 score, five back of Arizona State and two behind Duke.

“He keeps telling me he still wants to get out here for the final day,” Gaston said. “He’s a fighter. I think my players have been inspired a bit, but I also how they appreciate just where golf fits in to the overall picture.”

Yes there is a tournament going on here, and an important one at that. Can Vargas hang on to her four-shot individual lead, or even extend it? Recall that a year ago, she also held a share of the mid-way lead, only to shoot a third-round 82. Will ASU handle the pressure of being the leader as the championship begins its back nine? But in the grand scheme of things, it’s just a game, one that shouldn’t be smothered with an unusual amount of self-righteousness.

Unfortunately, sometimes it takes a scare to make us stop to appreciated this.

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News & Tours

OSU's Scarlet arrives just in time

COLUMBUS, OHIO—Just how much of a cushion did the folks at Ohio State have in getting the Scarlet Course ready for play this week at the NCAA Women’s Championship? It was a question I posed to Buckeyes women’s coach Therese Hession as she ran around the clubhouse area helping get things organized for the first round this morning, the course having undergone a $4.2 million renovation overseen by OSU alumnus Jack Nicklaus. Hession’s straight face sudden morphed into a wry smile. “Well we didn’t play our first round on the course until the first round of practice here Saturday,” she quipped. “That might give you an idea.”

Eileen_vargas And while players and coaches commented about how tough the course was playing during practices rounds, the proof of how strong a test the new Scarlet has become took shape Tuesday. In conditions that were close to perfect—sunny skies, little to no breeze—just two players in the morning wave of 66 broke par: ASU freshman Jennifer Osborn (70) and Arizona freshman Sommer Scholl (71). By the afternoon, the total grew to six out of 126 competitors, with Pepperdine junior Eileen Vargas (pictured) shooting a bogey-free 68 (including five clutch up and downs) to take a one-shot lead over Florida sophomore Tiffany Chudy. (UCLA’s Tiffany Cho and USC’s Catalina Marin also shot 71s.)

“We were saying as a team yesterday that something around even par would win individually, but I think it will actually be a couple under,” said Scholl after her round.

She might be the only one who has that hope. And any hope of a team sniffing a par score after 72 holes seems like a long shot. On the eve of the first round, Pepperdine coach Laurie Gibbs advised her team that a 295 score would be a good round in Columbus.

She was pretty close in her prediction as USC took the Day 1 lead with a three-over 291, one shot better than Arizona State, two better than Florida and six better than defending champion Duke.

“They got their money’s worth,” noted ASU women’s coach Melissa Luellen when asked about the renovations. “When I played the course when it hosted the NCAA Championship in the 1980s, I thought it was tough. Well it’s only gotten tougher out there.”

Nicklaus’ handiwork—he charged OSU a $1 fee—included resurfacing all 18 greens and other tweaks on virtually every hole. Bunkers were reshaped and deepened in classic Golden Bear style. The par-4 fifth hole was changed from a dogleg left to a dogleg right, with the green moved 120 feet. The 14th hole was shortened 30 yards from the tips, and changed to a par 4 for the men.

“Our objective was to accomplish what Ohio State asked of us, which was try to give the Scarlet course an Alister MacKenzie flair,” said Nicklaus. “I think it turned out beautiful. It might be difficult to find a better collegiate golf course in the country.”

You’ll be hard pressed to find anybody here that would disagree, even as they’re fighting to make pars. With the exception of a few bumpy greens, there seems to be only praise for the setup, even if it came down to the wire to get here.

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News & Tours

How Women's Nationals will play out

COLUMBUS, OHIO—At long last the NCAA Women’s Championship is upon us. Eight months of early morning workouts, late afternoon putting contests, cramming for exams in a cramped van, taking mid-terms on an even more cramped plane and any number of other assorted tales of life as a college golfer all boiling down to four days in May.

There’s actually something bittersweet about the whole thing really. Many golf fans will only remember the 2005-06 college golf season by how things shake out here after 72 holes on Ohio State’s newly renovated Scarlet Course, all the work and sacrifice by players and coaches since September lost to the ages. For some schools, seasons will be made in the next four days. For others, they will be forgotten, replaced instead with what might have been. It’s the nature of the beast, but it doesn’t make the reality of the situation any less cold.

At any rate, the question arises: Just who is going to be holding the national championship trophy come Friday? There are five teams I think will make serious bids for the title, appearing in alphabetically order:

Asulogo05_1 Arizona State—11 starts, 2 wins, 10 top-five finishes
    Four years into her tenure as Sun Devils coach, Melissa Luellen has her program back in the national limelight, welcome news for ASU faithful who, after watching the team win a record six national championships in nine years during the 1990s, have had to stomach finishing no better than a T-8 at NCAAs since 2000. While early this spring it was freshmen Jennifer Osborn and Azahara Munoz leading the way, senior Alissa Kuczka has had a pair of runner-up finishes at the Pac-10 Championship and East Regional, giving the squad even more cause for optimism.

Aublogo50 Auburn—11 starts, 5 wins, 10 top-five finishes
    The Tigers have been playing well of late, winning another SEC title last month and then taking the Lady Buckeye Invitational by 27 shots, before coming in sixth at the East Regional. I wouldn’t get too scared about the last result, particularly after seeing them briefly this morning during their practice round. Kim Evans’ bunch seems loose and I think they realize the championship is very much within their grasp. Maria Martinez has been an incredible catalyst this season, and I see her being in the mix again this week.

Duke_logo Duke—10 starts, 5 wins, 10 top-five finishes
    It’s already been a historic season for Blue Devils coach Dan Brooks, who broke the all-time NCAA win mark for a coach when his squad won the Stanford Pepsi Intercollegiate in March (two more wins since has put him at 94 victories and counting). Playing again with just five golfers on the roster, Duke has shown no signs why it can’t repeat as national champs. Freshman Amanda Blumenherst is poised to claim national player of the year honors with a good performance here, senior Liz Janangelo has the kind of character to want to make sure she finishes her college career with an exclamation point and junior Anna Grzebien commands respect as the defending NCAA individual winner.

Purtop1a04 Purdue—12 starts, 6 wins, 12 top-five finishes
    You’d be hard pressed not to pick Boilermaker coach Devon Brouse as national coach of the year after what he has done with his team, which wasn’t ranked at the start of the 2005-06 season. Playing nationals in the Midwest, meanwhile, can only bode well for Purdue in its bid to become the first northern school to win the NCAA title. The international crew includes starters from Thailand (Onnarin Sattayabanphot), Spain (Maria Hernandez), the Netherlands (Myrte Eikenaar and Christel Boeljon) and the United States (Whitney Frykman), four of the five having posted top-five finishes individually this season. If you believe in horses for courses, well …

Ucla_logo UCLA—10 starts, 4 wins, 9 top-five finishes
    Two years removed from winning at Grand National, the Bruins have more depth than they did in 2004, with freshman Jane Park and Tiffany Joh each capable of winning the individual title, having accounted for 10 of the team’s 17 top-10 finishes. Amie Cochran finished T-3 at nationals last year and looks to have her game in shape, and 2004 hero Susie Mathews surely wants to go out on top. Then there is the remarkable story of junior Hannah Jun, who returned to the line-up at regionals after suffering a broken neck in December, and had a T-32 finish.

The Scarlet Course hasn’t seen any play, literally, in more than a year and seems to be in good shape after Jack Nicklaus’ multi-million dollar renovations. It’s playing longer than the 6,203 yards listed, according to a few coaches, which should separate the field even more.

While all five teams I believe will be in the hunt enter the final round, I see two pulling away and going neck and neck down the stretch—Duke and Purdue. The Blue Devils are simply too talented to have a performance like they did in 2003, when they were heavy favorites that shot themselves out of the tournament early. The Boilermakers are motivated to prove their more than a fairy tale, but actually a talented team.

In the end, I just can’t pick against the top-ranked team in the country. I see the Blue Devils winning by five, thanks to a strong final-day by Janangelo, with Purdue second, Auburn third and UCLA and Arizona State tied for fourth.

Jane_park As for the individual race, the favorites include Duke’s Blumenherst and Janangelo, UCLA’s Park, USC senior Irene Cho, Texas A&M junior Ashley Knoll and Washington senior Paige Mackenize. The latter, a fifth-year senior, has won the Pac-10 title and the West Regional crown in successive starts. But come Friday, two others will pass her—Park and Janangelo. Park, the 2004 U.S. Women’s Amateur champion, is amazingly clutch in big events and will beat her 2004 U.S. Curtis Cup teammate by one shot.

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Previewing Men's Regionals

There’s something devilishly delightful about NCAA regionals, a trio of tournaments that many coaches confess are the toughest to play of any during the college season. It’s a competition where the best strategy is not obvious, what with the fact that finishing 10th means just about as much as coming in first. Indeed, with the top 10 teams in each regional getting to tee it up at the NCAA Championship—this year at Sunriver (Ore.) Resort’s Crosswater Course May 31-June 3—while the rest call it a season, it’s not so much about winning as it is surviving.
    So which top schools will advance and which ones might be left behind this weekend? Here’s a breakdown of each regional to help you get set for all the action:

EAST REGIONAL (for Golfstat's live scoring, click here)
Lake Nona GC, Orlando

Locks to advance: Georgia, UCLA, UNLV
    All five players in the lineup for the defending national champion Bulldogs have the game to take medalist honors, so there’s not much to worry about in Athens, Ga. … The Bruins haven’t finished outside the top 10 in any of their seven spring starts. … Rebels coach Dwaine Knight typically has his teams ready to play this time of year.

Safe bets: Georgia State, North Carolina, Texas Tech
    Hard to say whether the Panthers, Tar Heels or Red Raiders have had the more impressive run in 2005-06. All three have multiple wins this season and come with a lunch-pail crew that isn’t afraid to grind things out. Interestingly, the Panthers have the most recent post-season experience, with appearances at nationals the past two years.

Sweating it out: Southern California, Wake Forest, Coastal Carolina, South Carolina
    The Trojans and Gamecocks are very familiar with the perils of regionals as both were involved in a three-team playoff a year ago for the final spot at nationals out of the West. USC escaped to play at Caves Valley while South Carolina were sent back to Columbia. … The Demon Deacons are still a tough troop to figure out, winning against a standout field at the Hootie’s at Bulls Bay while failing to crack the top 12 in Las Vegas and at the Hall of Fame Invitational. … The Cinderfellas at 2005 nationals were the Chanticleers, who have been playing well this spring with a pair of victories.

Will have work to do: Charlotte, Tennessee, Auburn
    Kudos to Jamie Green’s 49ers squad, which has four wins and hasn’t finished out of the top five all season, but they will have to step up in a big way to play in Oregon. … It’s surprising nobody in Knoxville, Tenn., has filed a missing persons report considering the Volunteers have no better than a  T-7 finish this spring. … Winning their own Billy Hitchcock Invitational in April was a nice lift for the Tigers, but the presence of Lee Williams has been tough for Auburn to replace.

Dark horses: Indiana, Notre Dame
    The Hoosiers looked poised to claim the Big Ten title only to have a major fourth-round collapse that should give pause. Still, IU has won twice in six weeks. … It’s the third straight year into regionals for the Fighting Irish, 52 years removed from their lone national title.

Wait until next year: Florida State, Maryland, Jacksonville, Western Illinois, Wichita State, Rhode Island, George Washington, Richmond, Liberty, Army, Binghamton.

CENTRAL REGIONAL (for Golfstat's live scoring, click here)
Sand Ridge GC, Chardon, Ohio

Locks to advance: Oklahoma State, Georgia Tech, Clemson
    With a streak of 59 straight years playing at nationals for the Cowboys, it’s more likely George W. Bush’s approval ratings jump to 55 percent than OSU not making it to Oregon. … Yellow Jackets coach Bruce Heppler tried to sell me that this likely would be a “rebuilding” year for his program. Do you know how many coaches would kill for three wins and a piece of an ACC title later while “rebuilding”? … The Tigers had been lost for a while since finally getting Hall of Fame coach Larry Penley his elusive national title in 2003. However, his young squad has gained confidence of late and with a couple blue chips coming in next year (Kyle Stanley and Sam Saunders), teams better get Clemson now or face the consequences.

Safe bets:
Texas A&M, Lamar
    Aggies coach J.T. Higgins has quietly built a great infrastructure in College Station; the program has advanced to nationals last two years and should sweat out No. 3. … Might be an 11th seed entering the tournament and their spring schedule might not have been Grade A, but five wins in seven starts for the Cardinals is something that should get everyone attention. Plus, his best player, Dawie van der Walt, hasn’t even been on his game.   

Sweating it out: Duke, Texas, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Northwestern
    The Blue Devils just haven’t shown the same spark from 2005, when they earned their first ACC title in nearly 40 years. Win at the Western Intercollegiate shows you they have the potential to succeed; eighth at ACCs shows you they have the potential to implode. … Biggest question for the Longhorns: Is Matthew Rosenfeld’s turnaround at the Big 12 Championship a one-tournament wonder or is the former All-American truly back on his game? The answer is likely to determine UT’s fate. … The Ky. Wildcats are inexperienced compared to previous seasons, but their young players aren't lacking talent. … The Sooners’ Big 12 team title made one prognosticator eat some crow (See previous blog entry). They proved they’re more than Anthony Kim and the pips at Southern Hills, but can they do it again? … The N’Western Wildcats have momentum after claiming the Big Ten title, and cold, windy conditions outside Cleveland would play into their hands.

Will have work to do: Tulsa, Minnesota, Kent State, TCU
    At mid-season, the Golden Hurricanes and Golden Gophers looked to be solid top-25 programs but each has struggled in the spring. Tulsa has seven top-10s in eight starts, but only three top-fives. Minnesota has four top-fives in seven starts but is still searching for a reliable player in the No. 1 spot. … The Golden Flashes always bring a lot of pride to regionals, but that’s not going to be enough this year. … The good news for the Horned Frogs is they finished second at the Central Preview last September. The bad news is that it was their best finish of the season.
Dark horses:
Purdue, SMU
    Boilermakers coach Devon Brouse might have more of a distraction this year as his women’s team is a legitimate threat for the NCAA title at the Scarlet Course. Still, he has had his men's teams make it to nationals four of the past five years. … The Mustangs are a quiet bunch that has the potential to go low. Four tournament wins, including the Conference USA title, make them tougher than you think.

Wait until next fall:
Xavier, Texas-Arlington, Colorado, Missouri, Nebraska, Kansas State, Eastern Kentucky, Cleveland State, Sienna, Princeton, St. Francis (Pa.).

(for Golfstat's live scoring, click here)
Tucson National GC, Tucson

Locks to advance:
Florida, Arizona State
    Gator senior Matt Every, the recently named Ben Hogan Award winner, has an ability to inspire a team (no coincidence he was on the winning U.S. Walker and Palmer Cup teams in 2005), and his teammates can all back him up. … On a desert-type course, the Sun Devils should feel right at home.

Safe bets: BYU, Arizona, Washington
    The Cougars have five players with sub-73 stroke averages and good vibes in Tucson, after winning their in February. … The host Wildcats haven’t had a typical stellar season, but familiarity with the course should make trip to nationals a done deal. … The Huskies might be seeded No. 10, but they have a group of players (defending NCAA medalist James Lepp, Alex Prugh and Erik Olson) who seem to come through in the clutch.    

Sweating it out: East Tennessee State, Baylor, Alabama, New Mexico, Stanford
    The Bucs have solid players to back up All-American Rhys Davies, but for some reason the hole isn’t always greater than the sum of the parts. … The Bears’ Ryan Baca is the best college player no one has heard of, but that’s not for a lack of trying on his part (two wins, five top-fives) or his teammates (Bears have four wins, 10 top-fives). … Going west isn’t to Crimson Tide’s advantage, but has experience of getting through regionals a year ago. … Lobos consistency is an issue, but winning a fourth-straight Mountain West title has them pointed in the right direction. … A year ago the Cardinal rallied late in the final round to grab one of the last spots into nationals.

Will have work to do:
Pepperdine, San Diego State, N.C. State
    The Waves have been crashing, if you will, since late March and there is really no sign that the free fall is about to end. … The Aztecs have two nice wins this spring and strong showings in some more marquee events, but are they ready for primetime? … The Wolfpack are solid in the No. 1 and 2 spots with Stephen Lewton and Jerry Richardson but seem to lack the depth to advance to nationals.

Dark horses: Houston, Louisville, New Mexico State
    Getting back to regionals after missing out the past three years is a big step for the Cougars, who can play carefree in Tucson. … Twin brothers Derek and Daryl Fathauer give the Cardinals a good nucleus and both have experience from playing at regionals a year ago. … The Aggies first-ever WAC title provides some momentum and coach Scott Lieberwirth is excited the team is playing relatively close to home.

Wait until next fall:
Denver, Santa Clara, Fresno State, UC-Irvine, Nevada, San Diego, Cal-Poly, Western Kentucky, Loyola Marymount, Jackson State, Bucknell.

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News & Tours

Ben Hogan Award Redux

I’ve been hemming and hawing about writing this blog entry for a couple days now, hoping in all honesty my level of disappointment in the situation regarding Oklahoma State’s Pablo Martin not being named a finalist for college golf’s Ben Hogan Award—let alone winning the award—would subside from furious anger to manageable disdain. Unfortunately, time hasn’t healed my wounds. If anything it’s only made me more frustrated at the absurdity of the situation.

Pablo_martin Quick review: The Ben Hogan Award is given by Bank of America, in cooperation with Colonial Country Club, The Friends of Golf (FOG) and the Golf Coaches Association of America (GCAA). Quoting the GCAA releases, “The Hogan is presented annually to the top men’s NCAA Division I, II or III, NAIA or junior college golfer taking into account all collegiate and amateur competitions during the last 12 months.” During the year a watch list is released that includes a few dozen players, a group that is then narrowed down to 10 semifinalists and ultimately three finalists, who are then invited to a black-tie ceremony at Colonial CC, where the winner is revealed.

When this year’s list of finalists was announced May 2, it included Florida senior Matt Every, Georgia junior Chris Kirk and Oklahoma junior Anthony Kim, all talented golfers deserving of recognition. It did not include, however, Martin, a sophomore from Malaga, Spain, who at the time had two wins, eight top-four finishes and nine top-10s in nine starts in 2005-06, as well as the best stroke average of any player in the country.

Not surprisingly, my first reaction at seeing Martin’s omission was surprise. Yet I chalked it up to the fact that the award also takes into account amateur competitions. Since Martin only played in two summer tournaments in the U.S., and one of them he was nursing an injury and played poorly (Never mind that he won the other, taking the individual title at the prestigious Porter Cup), perhaps it was enough to justify him being the odd man out.

As it turns out, Martin’s on-course play had everything to do with him not making the final threesome, but not the way you would think. Martin, you see, was going to be playing in a college event, The Maxwell, the same day as the Hogan announcement dinner, and thus would not be to attend the presentation. Because of pressure to have all three finalists at the dinner, Martin’s name was removed from consideration by the Hogan award committee for inclusion as a finalist.

Yes, you’re not misunderstanding the situation, as illogical as it sounds. Long story short:  Martin picks being with his team over looking out for himself and what does he get in return? Shafted.

What we’ve come to learn in the past two weeks is we’ve all been reading the description of the Hogan Award all wrong. There’s a missing clause at the end that apparently was written in invisible ink and only now has been revealed: “The Hogan is presented annually to the top men’s NCAA Division I, II or III, NAIA or junior college golfer taking into account all collegiate and amateur competitions during the last 12 months EXCEPT IF THE COMPETITIONS CONFLICT WITH THE AWARDS DINNER, AT WHICH TIME THE PLAYER’S ACCOMPLISHMENTS FOR THE PREVIOUS 364 DAYS WILL BE TOTALLY MEANINGLESS.”   

In the interest of full disclosure, I am a media member on a GCAA selection committee that annually picks the recipient of the Byron Nelson Award. It’s through my dealings with the GCAA staff, specifically with executive director Gregg Grost, that I have developed a great deal of respect for the organization. I honestly can’t recall any situation in the past decade of working with them where they did not continually and unfailingly look out for college golfers above all other concerns.

This is what, then, makes this whole fiasco so mind boggling.

I know there is an interest in developing the Ben Hogan Award into college golf’s equivalent of the Heisman Trophy and thus having a swanky ceremony to present the award is important. But it’s totally short-sighted if all the best players in college golf aren’t being considered. Sure Martin could have skipped the Maxwell, which is the decision Kim actually made before being announced as a finalist. But why should Martin have to be put in that situation? It’s totally and completely unnecessary. (By the way, Oklahoma State won the Maxwell, the Cowboys third tournament win of the 2005-06 season and no doubt a nice confidence boost heading into this week's NCAA regionals.)

Every Meanwhile, not only is what happened unfair to Martin, but also unfair to Every, who won the award last Saturday night. His senior season was extremely impressive (one win, seven top-fives, eight top-10s in 11 starts), plus his amateur record was stellar, being low amateur at the U.S. Open and a member of the victorious U.S. Walker and Palmer Cup teams. There is a very real chance he would have beaten out Martin to win the award if the two records were compared head-to-head. We’ll get to see that when the Fred Haskins Award, another annual prize given to the “best” collegiate golfer in the country, is revealed in another month.

For now, though, Every will be remembered unfortunately by some as the Hogan Award winner during the year it was decided who received the honor wasn’t as important as whether they were there to hear their name called.

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News & Tours

Losing their balance

To state the obvious, it’s no easy task the NCAA Men’s Division I Golf Committee has in selecting the 81 schools to participate in the three NCAA regionals and then seed the teams to balance the strength of fields in each region. But … and didn’t you know there was a BUT coming … when committee chair Mike Hermann, the new athletic director at Towson, rattled off the programs and where they were playing during yesterday's announcement call (click here for the complete list), you couldn’t help but wonder just how well the committee did its job this year.

Indeed, while there seemed to be little hesitation in moving teams from the natural home region, the committee seems to forget to drop off any programs between the coasts. UCLA, the No. 5 ranked team in the country in the Golf World College Coaches’ poll, and UNLV (No. 7) moved East as if trading spaces with Florida (No. 3) and Georgia Tech (No. 4), who will travel to the West and Tucson. No. 10 East Tennessee State, a natural fit in the Central Regional, was actually shipped to Tucson and the West Regional. Bottom line: Of the top 10 schools, four are in the East Regional, four in the West and only two are in the Central when each of the events takes place May 18-20.

Expand the breakdown to Golf World’s top 25, and the East Regional clearly remained the strongest, despite several top programs in the area being moved. Eleven of the top 25 are in the East Regional while only seven are in the Central or the West.

Granted, trying to boost the Central Regional field was made more difficult this year for Hermann and his colleagues by the fact that the Big 12 Conference had several solid but not spectacular teams in 2005-06 and the Big Ten faired even worse, having no team ranked in the top 25 in the last Golf World poll. Without these power conferences feeding schools into this regional, tinkering with the field was a necessary evil. Still, it just seems odd that except for Georgia Tech and No. 12 Duke, no top 15 team was moved into the Central.

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News & Tours

Conferences Calls—Men, final edition

There are three last conference clashes before the men's NCAA Division I Golf Committee announces the 81 teams and 18 individuals on Monday. Here's an inside look:

Midamerican_men Site:
Brickyard Crossing GC, Indianapolis (For live scoring, check out Golfstat.)
Dates: May 4-6
Defending champion: Kent State; Ryan Yip, Tommy Wiegand, Kent State
Field: Akron, Ball State, Bowling Green State, Eastern Michigan, Kent State, Miami (Ohio), Northern Illinois, Ohio, Toledo
Skinny: Kent State coach Herb Page doesn’t beat around the bush when it comes to teeing it up at the MAC Championship. “Our expectation as a program is to play for a championship,” said the Hall of Fame coach. “Four of our five players played pivotal roles last year in our winning the title. However, last year means nothing. Last week means nothing. We need to go out there this week and execute.” We’re betting the Golden Flashes don’t have a problem doing the latter, considering the fact they have won 15 MAC titles, including 11 since 1992. Last year’s co-champion, Ryan Yip, is in prime position to repeat as medalist, with Tommy Wiegand likely to do the same. The most likely non-Kent State player to contend will be Eastern Michigan’s Korey Mahoney. We’ll take Yip to win by two shots.

Atlantic 10
A10 Site:
Orange County National GC, Winter Garden, Fla.
Dates: May 5-7
Defending champion: Xavier; Jason Kokrak, Xavier, Neal Grusczynski, Xavier
Field: Dayton, Duquesne, Fordham, George Washington, LaSalle, UNC-Charlotte, Rhode Island, Richmond, St. Bonaventure, St. Joseph’s, St. Louis, Temple, Xavier
Skinny: Officials hope to avoid the bad weather that forced last year’s event to be shortened to 27 holes, and Xavier is searching for a fifth A-10 crown and the fourth in six years. Yet while the Musketeers have history on their side, UNC-Charlotte has the best record of the 13 teams in the field, finishing first or second in six of its nine starts and will ultimately be the team raising the trophy come Sunday. Meanwhile, six of the top 10 finishers from last year’s tournament are also back in 2006, including co-medalist Jason Kokrak from Xavier. Charlotte junior Ray Sheedy, however, has had three top-three finishes this season and seems poised to close out the year on a high note with the A-10 individual title.

Northeast_conf Site:
Disney Resort, Palm course, Lake Buena  Vista, Fla.
Dates: May 6-7 
Defending champion: Central Connecticut State; Anthony Campanile, Monmouth
Field: Central Connecticut State, Fairleigh Dickinson, LIU-Brooklyn, Monmouth, Mount St. Mary’s, Quinnipiac, Robert Morris, Sacred Heart, St. Francis (Pa.), Wagner
Skinny: While you’re not going to find any teams that will win the NCAA Championship in this bunch, the conference clash could be among the most entertaining of any we’ve seen this year, with no team in the field ranked better than 232 (St. Francis) or worse than 280 (Wagner). Having won the title the previous year, I’ll give Central Connecticut State the nod to repeat in Florida. Individually, 2005 NEC player of the year Chris Cyr of Quinnipiac has won conference player of the week honors twice in the past three weeks and seems to be ready to win medalist honors; we say he holds off Monmouth’s Anthony Campanile by three shots.

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