I say this without much pride, but the 2012-13 women's college golf season has me all confused. Who's good? Who's not so good? Who's gaining momentum? Who's
Amid my confusion, there are a couple story lines that have flown under the radar that are worth a mention.
* Campbell claimed its fifth team title last Sunday a 21-stroke triumph over Mississippi State at the JMU Eagle Invitational. It was the Camels fourth win in five starts, and the 69th overall for coach John Crooks, who is second among active coaches behind Duke's Dan Brooks in career wins. The team is three back of the school's record for most wins in a single season (set in 1997-98) with Crooks' squad having two more regular season events and the Big South Conference Championship (where they're the defending champs) still to play.
* Oklahoma State senior Kelsey Vines is making her case for the player-of-the-year honors. Her 71.26 average is the best in the country, and thus far in the spring she has finished first, second and second. After missing the Bruin Wave Invitational, Vines (right, photo courtesy of Oklahoma State) is in the lineup for the Cowgirls, according to Golfstat, for this weekend's SunTrust Gator Women's Invitational.
No matter where you look today, if you're a college golf fan you've got to have a smile on your face. This weekend has one of the most impressive slates of tournaments, both men and women, we've had for any individual week this spring if not the entire 2012-13 season.
It starts with the Southern Highlands Collegiate Masters, which as I wrote about in Golf World Preview has 11 of the top 13 teams in the latest Golf World/Nike Golf men's coaches poll competing as well as 14 of the 27 players named to the Ben Hogan Award watch list. Host UNLV has won the team title six times since 2002, when the event was moved to Southern Highlands, but can that trend counter the momentum that top-ranked California carries with it into Vegas? As I've previously noted, this is as close as you get in college golf to a major championship.
Simultaneously, the Bandon Dunes Championship is an intriguing event to follow, with No. 4 Washington being the headliner. The Huskies are in an interesting spot as the clear favorite. How they handle situation will provide valuable insight into just how strong a team Matt Thurmond has in Seattle.
The women, meanwhile, have a counterpunch for both those events.
The first spring listing of the contenders for the Palmer Cup were released this week and created just the kind of buzz that the Golf Coaches Association of America was hoping for when deciding to establish the ranking in the first place.
While the race to make the American team is a strong one, with Cal's Michael Kim holding a lead over Washington's Trevor Simsby, it's the international listing that seems to hold the most intrigue for the time being.
UCLA's Pontus Widegren remains in the top spot, but TCU's Julien Brun is a hard-charging second. And the sudden polish shown from Cal's Joel Stalter (who has two straight individual wins) vaulted him to the No. 4 spot.
It's been five days and I still can't get over one simple fact about Stanford freshman Mariah Stackhouse's NCAA record setting final round at the Peg Barnard Invitational.
Forget the 10-under 61 at Stanford GC. How about the nine-under 26 on the front nine.
"It's not even the side of the course that I like," Stackhouse (right) said afterward, a line that literally caused me to laugh out loud.
Two eagles and five birdies left little doubt that the 18-year-old from Riverdale, Ga., was going to claim medalist honors in the 36-hole tournament. A three-putt bogey on the 13th and another bogey on the 14th kept a sub-60 score from coming true, but Stackhouse's 61 sufficed as it bested her previous personal best by four strokes.
The field is only 12 teams and just four ranked in the top 25 of the Golf World/WGCA coaches' poll, but I'm going to be paying close attention to the Florida State Match-Up event that began this morning at Southwood GC in Tallahassee, Fla. With so many college events having the same look and feel, it's great what coach Amy Bond and the Seminoles are trying to do with this first-year event.
The concept behind the Match-Up is pretty interesting: six teams were initially invited to play in the tournament. Those six teams were then allowed to contact a team of their choice to partner with during the competition.
Say this about the spring college golf season: there's no easing in to the action for many marquee programs.
Several early February events have some of the deepest fields of any tournaments all spring. On the men's side, the Amer Ari Invitational wraps up today in Hawaii with eight of the top 25 teams from the Golf World/Nike Golf coaches' poll competing. On the women's side, this week's the Northrup Grumman Regionals Challenge, with four of the top five teams in the latest Golf World/WGCA coaches' poll, is the ranked the fourth toughest event of the spring this year (after being No. 1 in 2012) while the Lady Puerto Rico Classic is tied for sixth toughest.
The majority of coaches I've talked to like to play a difficult event at the outset as it helps better assess where their team stands as well as helping motivate the team during the winter break. That said, coaches from programs in northern climates where practice has been tough to come by prefer a "soft" start to the spring in order to ease into the competition and not get battered around in the early events that might harm their ranking come the postseason.
It's why I think the Big Ten Match Play event that the men's programs in the conference play in each year, I think is the best of both worlds. There are enough quality teams for programs to get a legitimate feel for how their rosters are shaping up, and the match-play format and the fact that no school has a real weather advantage over others create a relatively level playing for the schools.
The early season event that actually intrigues me the most, however, is the Northrup Grumman, which will be held for the 17th year at Palos Verdes GC in California. This is the one spring college tournament, men's or women's, that I've never covered that I would love to go to some day. Talking to the coaches who played in the event, there's a legend about the slick and contours Palos Verdes' greens that I'd like to see for myself. Several coaches have told me they love playing there because of the challenge the greens pose. Others have played a few times and don't want to go back, saying the greens actually got into the heads of players and spooked them in later spring events.
Mind you those are coaches who didn't play all that well the times they did compete at Palos Verdes.
Long story short, you've got to bring it early in college golf. Otherwise you're in for a bumpy start to the spring.
The house lights blinked this past weekend, signaling the end of intermission for the 2012-13 season. Yet it was anything but quiet from the end of November to the end of January as several stories played out concerning college golf.
* One of the best players in the men's game moved on (Texas' Jordan Spieth turning pro)
* The reigning NCAA men's champion announced he would be turning pro at the end of the spring (Illinois' Thomas Pieters)
* College golf finally got the TV deal was looking for regarding the NCAA Championship (men's finals to be televised by Golf Channel in 2014; women in 2015)
* January freshman arrived and are ready to have an impact (Tennessee adding Oliver Goss, an Australian who was a quarterfinalist at last year's U.S. Amateur; USC adding Annie Park, a New Yorker who played in the 2012 U.S. Women's Open).
* January freshman arrived and are waiting to have an impact next fall (Texas with Beau Hossler, UCLA with Gavin Hall)
There were other storylines to, but the ushers are insisting I find my seat so the second half of the performance can begin. You me, won't you.
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.
This is the eighth time I've written The Syllabus this fall, but it is the first time I've mentioned the name of one particular men's program, which is pretty amazing when you think about it.
I'm talking about Oklahoma State.
You remember them, don't you? Won a few national titles back in the day. Played in the NCAA Championship every year since, roughly speaking, dinosaurs roamed the Earth until last spring, when the unimaginable happened and the squad failed to get out of NCAA regionals (after barely having a .500 record to qualify for the postseason at all).
The proud Cowboys program entered the 2012-13 season unranked—a sentence I never thought I'd type—but that changed when they claimed the No. 17 spot in the Golf World/Nike Golf coaches' poll this past week. The appearance was thanks, in large part, to a runner-up finish at the Jack Nicklaus Invitational earlier in October.
After voting closed for the latest poll, Mike McGraw's squad proceeded to show even more signs of life. With a closing round one-under 283, OSU passed second-round leader Texas Tech to claim the title at the Royal Oaks Intercollegiate, shooting a 10-under 842 to outpace the Red Raiders and New Mexico by four strokes. Leading the way was Ian Davis, a junior who shared medalist honors with Iowa's Ian Vandersee after shooting seven-under 206s. The team win was the first for McGraw's squad since the 2011 NCAA regional in Colorado and Davis was the first individual since Kevin Tway at that tournament as well.
By no means do I think the Cowboys are going to be a legitimate contender for the NCAA title this coming spring; they simply haven't suggested they have a lineup capable of that kind of achievement just yet. But a run at the Big 12 title isn't out of the question.
And that would be a good thing.
Indeed, please take this next paragraph in the right context. I'm not some OSU homer here. I am a believer, however, that men's college golf is better off having Oklahoma State be relevant. It's that way in any college sport where a dominant program finds itself hurting during lean years; the sport loses a little of its luster when its marquee names are struggling. Call it the rising-tide-carries-all-boats theory. OSU is a program with too much history not to be in the conversation nationally when it comes to golf.
For the folks in Stillwater, thankfully it looks like they're part of that conversation once again.
With a fifth victory in five starts after its triumph this week at the Isleworth Collegiate Invitational, California has definitively moved ... wait for it ... to the head of the class in men's college golf.
Conversely after eight weeks of competition and dozens of meaningful tournaments, there is no such clarity in the women's game. Not even close. Think of the absolutely opposite of clarity, and that's what we've got brewing.
* Alabama was the preseason No. 1 in the Golf World/WGCA coaches' poll.
* Washington and Arizona have held the top spot in the Golfweek/Sagarin polls.
* Duke jumped atop the coaches' poll last month—the next poll will be released next Wednesday. Golfstat currently has USC leading the pack.
* Personally, I've had Florida and North Carolina atop my Fab Five at times over the last few weeks. I'm likely forgetting somebody else, which just goes to show you how crazy it's been.
So many choices, so little consensus.
This coming week (in theory) could provide some help in figuring out what school has the top squad. The Landfall Tradition and the Betsy Rawls Longhorn Invitational are being held and will host a combined 12 of the top 25 in the Golf World/WGCA poll—including seven of the top 10—in the last big weekend of action for the fall season.
More than likely, however, we're going to enter the winter break more confused about who the key figures in the 2012-13 national championship race will be than when we began the fall semester (for instance, what do we make of UCLA, the preseason No. 2 squad that didn't have a top-five finish all fall?).
Mind you, this confusion isn't necessarily a bad thing. The more teams in the mix, the more exciting the chase might actually become. If nothing else, it provides an interesting storyline as the first half of the college season comes to an end.