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The Syllabus: Break time

By Ryan Herrington

It's fair to say that I've drunk the kool-aid regarding many nuances of college golf, most notably how the team aspect of the sport plays such an important role overall. Yet if there's a specific part of the game I find myself unsettled about it is how I view the fall semester ... or more specifically how much import I put in it.

Indeed, I tend to side with coaches who espouse that the fall should actually be a time for experimentation (a group that finds itself in the minority). It makes sense to me to let as many players on a roster as you can get some playing time in live tournaments during the fall, in so much as it provides coaches the opportunity to see what kind of mettle said players have in honest-to-goodness competition. If that means taking "weaker" lineups to a tournament, so be it. My logic is that I believe any bad results in the fall can (likely) be improved upon in the spring, and having given your players the chance to sink or swim, you can better rationalize coaching decisions regarding playing time come the spring.

Part of this mindset comes from the fact that the top team at the end of the fall season frequently is NOT the school that walks off with the NCAA title come spring. Since Golf World resumed its coaches' poll in the 2001-02 season, only two times has the No. 1 men's team in the last ranking before the winter break gone on to win the national championship come June—Clemson in 2002-03 and Texas in 2011-12. Eight of the nine other times the eventual NCAA champion was ranked in the top 25 (see chart below), but they had an average ranking of 8.625 (2002 champ Minnesota is the only winner that was unranked at the end of the fall). Granted this is a small sample size, but it seems to me you need to play decently in the fall, but playing exceptionally isn't a prerequisite for winning the NCAA title. 

Similarly on the women's side, the top-ranked team closing the fall has only won the NCAA title twice: Duke in 2004-05 and 2005-06. That said in the other nine years, the national champion has always been ranked in the top 10 and only once has been ranked worse than 4. The general assumption is there's less parity in women's college golf. Still the idea that there's only a few dynasties running the show is a little outdated.

As we begin the winter break for the 2012-13 season, I think a few observations can be fairly made.

* There has been no more dominant team in the men's game than California, a squad that deservedly should be a favorite to win the NCAA title next spring.

* There is no guarantee, however, no matter how dominant Cal has looked, that they're going to win the NCAA title. In fact, history suggests it's actually unlikely.

* Considering how wide open the women's title race appears to be, this might be the rare outlier season when a team not near the top of the Golf World/WGCA ranking actually rallies in the spring and claims the title.

Meanwhile, the Syllabus will be taking some time off during the winter break. Just like the players themselves, the professor is looking for some R&R.


Fall success chart (321).jpg
THE FAB FIVE
My look at the top five teams in the country right now

Cal logo.gif1. California (Last week: 1)
I went to Golfstat to go through the stats and try to look for some sort of hiccup for the Golden Bears from the fall that might suggest their first-half performance wasn't as impressive as five wins in five starts would suggest. Best I could find was that the team hit only 64.2 percent of fairways, ranking them 30th among teams that have the stat tracked. Oh, and their putting average was 30.86, ranking them 28th. Otherwise, there is no category—none—that Cal isn't ranked in the top seven in the entire country.   
Next event: Fall season complete
 
Alabama logo.gif2. Alabama (2)
It's my understanding that coach Jay Seawell is quite happy in his job overseeing the Crimson Tide men's golf program, but apparently some people had higher political aspirations for him (see article). The way things are shaping up in Tuscaloosa, I think his day job might actually have more clout than if he had a few more people backing him for the vice presidency.
Next event: Fall season complete

Georgia Tech logo.gif3. Georgia Tech (3)
Amazingly, you can make the opposite case for the Yellow Jackets than you can with Cal. Try looking at their stats and you aren't blown away with much of anything. The best they rank is 23rd in team scoring and they are outside the top 50 in birdies. But the stat that matters most in my mind, wins, shows them with two in four starts along with a second-place showing.
Next event: Fall season complete

Texas logo.jpeg4. Texas (4)
"Hello, Mr. Spieth ... or can I call you Jordan ... this is the governor on the phone. On behalf of all the people in the great state of Texas, I surely hope you'll consider playing for the Longhorns again this spring. I know the PGA Tour is tempting, but you do know the Longhorn men's golf team hasn't repeated as NCAA champions since the 1970s and, well, your presence on the roster should would help our chances this year."   
Next event: Fall season complete

Washington 2012-13.jpeg5. Washington (5)
Missing out on a spot in the Masters by one stroke might seem agonizingly painful, but given where he stood at the start of the final round at the Asia-Pacific Amateur, that Cheng-Tsung Pan would post a 65 and nearly swipe the title away from 14-year-old Tainlang Guan should be considered a pretty rewarding feat. Still hasn't finished outside the top three in a stroke-play tournament since.
Next event: Fall season complete


Women
Alabama logo.gif1. Alabama (T-1)
They don't hand out the NCAA championship trophy in the fall, which is a good thing for the Crimson Tide considering how inconsistent the semester was for them. Yet a share of the title at the Betsy Rawls to close things out affirms for many (me included) the notion that the top of the lineup (specifically Jennifer Kirby and Stephanie Meadow) for the defending national champions is not just the most experienced but arguably the most reliable. It's something that bodes well for this group come spring.
Next event: Fall season complete

North Carolina logo 2008-09.gif2. North Carolina (T-1)
The Tar Heels remind me a little of last year's LSU squad, in that they seemed to be a feast or famine team this fall. Two wins—including a victory in the biggest tournament of the semester at the Liz Murphey NCAA preview—and two finishes outside the top eight in their other starts. I like that UNC went back-to-back to close the fall, which suggests to me that something clicked after a slow start.
Next event: Fall season complete

USC logo.gif3. USC (T-1)
The small sample size (only three starts in the fall) make it tough to fully embrace the Trojans, but the Stanford win and the fact that they finished third in their other two events hints that this squad can factor come next spring. Personally, I'm still having trouble getting past the five-player roster, but it's not like teams haven't won NCAA titles with just the bare minimum number of players.
Next event: Fall season complete

Florida logo.gif4. Florida (T-1)
The hard part about adjusting to the fact that the Gators appear to be for real is the fact that it's just so unexpected given the storylines that have played out. A first-year coach (Emily Bastel) who barely had any roots in Gainesville leading her teams to two wins in four starts? A junior sensation (Isabelle Lendl) who most people had given up on rekindling her game with one year left in college? The new narratives are exciting but taking some getting used to.     
Next event: Fall season complete

Washington 2012-13.jpeg5. Washington (T-1)
Looking for a reason to believe that the Huskies aren't going to fade away when the spring semester begins? Check out their putting stats. The team ranks first in the country in average putts per round, with SooBin Kim ranked No. 1 individually, Charlotte Thomas No. 16 and Jennifer Yang No. 19. A solid short game is something that most teams crave. UW looks like it has it.
Next event: Fall season complete



STAT OF THE WEEK
7
Consecutive seasons in which the UCLA men have won at least one college tournament after the Bruins claimed the team title this week at the Gifford Collegiate, shooting a three-under 1,062 to beat Stanford by three strokes.


 

TWEET OF THE WEEK
Tweet of the Week (Jay Seawell) 11-8-jpg
—Alabama men's coach Jay Seawell not long after his school's football team capped a thrilling come-from-behind victory over LSU to retain their No. 1 ranking. Tigers' fans might see it as gloating ... I'll look at it as a teachable moment.


RANDOM THOUGHT OF THE WEEK
Living in the northeast, I was thoroughly impressed with how well prepared and prescient the meteorological community in tracking Hurricane Sandy. Made me want to stop cracking cliche jokes about how bad weather people are in making forecasts. But then I woke up this morning with eight inches of snow on the ground from yesterday's noreaster after hearing the local weather folks say the previous night all it would be is a light dusting or just rain. #stillguessing   

RANDOM THOUGHT OF THE WEEK, Part II
It should never take longer to vote than play a round of golf. Got to be a way to fix some of the issues at the polling places.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR
* I've written for several years now about how anticlimactic the early signing period has become in college golf. My opinion hasn't changed this year as I practically forgot that next Wednesday is the first day that seniors can sign national letters of intent (NLIs). That said, I'm excited for the young players who are going to experience one of the bigger days of their lives when they sign on the dotted lines. Congrats on their hard work.
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