The first-year women's coach at Nova Southeastern has three of the five top ranked players in Division II, including No. 1 Abbey Gittings and No. 2 Daniela Ortiz. No other team has more than one in the top 10. They're also the three-time defending NCAA Division II champs, and are currently ranked atop the Golf World/NGCA Women's Division II rankings.
But Brown's first year at the helm became more challenging in recent months when her roster shrunk to just four golfers. Chelsey Herbert, a freshman from Wales who was the fifth starter for the Sharks, decided not to return to campus after the winter break.
Brown said Herbett had trouble adjusting to college in the U.S. "She kind of told me last minute so I didn't have a lot of time, but even if I did have a lot of time it's hard to find someone," Brown said. "It's hard to find somebody who just happens to play golf and shoot in the low 80s, 70s."
Despite playing a woman down, Nova Southeastern defended its title at last weekend's Peggy Kirk Bell Invitational, winning the tournament for the fourth straight year (above). Gittings claimed the individual title, bumping her teammate, Ortiz, out of the No. 1 spot in Division II.
A couple of interesting tidbits:
* While ranked seventh in the poll, Duke is out of the top five for the first time since November 2009.
* North Carolina's No. 9 ranking is the first time the Tar Heels have been ranked in the top-10 in the Golf World poll since we resumed the polls in the 2001-02 season.
* The SEC is the most well-represented conference in terms of top-25 programs, with eight schools ranked in the poll. Second was the Pac-12 (six), and third was the ACC (four).
A lot, frankly, and I don't mean this in a bad way.
As has been the case for a while now, the overall depth in the women's game continues to grow, and with that the gap between the haves and have nots is being bridged. With Purdue's victory a year ago, the first time a northern school claimed the national championship,
Compiled by Ryan Herrington
SORRENTO, FLA.--You couldn't get rid of the smile on the face of Arizona State senior Azahara Munoz as she walked around the practice range at Red Tail GC, preparing to play for the top-ranked Sun Devils in the UCF Challenge. While having only missed two tournaments this spring following surgery Jan. 22 to remove a cyst from her right wrist, the defending NCAA individual champion hadn't played in an event since the end of October, the longest stretch of time off from the game since she began playing in earnest.
"Originally, they thought it was only going to be four weeks, but it turned into six," Munoz said, the impatience in her voice rather obvious. "It's my last semester. I just don't want to miss anything."
The wrist remains sore, and Munoz continues to undergo ultrasound treatments to help regain mobility that has been inhibited by scar tissue. Still, except for the ice bag she carried after the round you wouldn't have noticed anything was amiss Sunday, the 21-year-old Spaniard posting an even-par 72 to place T-23 after 18 holes, six strokes back of leader Jessica Yadloczky of Florida. (In the team competition, UCLA's six-under 282 gave the Bruins a two-stroke lead over ASU through Day 1.)
"The last two weeks she's really made a lot of improvement," said ASU coach Melissa Luellen, Munoz' practice regime finally including full swings within the last 10 days. "She knows she can play through some of the pain. But it broke her heart not to travel to Mexico [for last week's Arizona Wildcat Invitational]."
It wasn't just her own return that Munoz was happy about. Accompanying the Sun Devils to Florida was Missy Farr-Kaye, the team's associate head coach who was traveling to her first tournament of the 2008-09 season after undergoing treatment last fall for a recurrence of breast cancer.
"The hair is coming back, although I've still got to wear a cap," Farr-Kaye said with a laugh, two weeks removed from having finished seven weeks of radiation therapy.
Farr-Kaye had first been diagnosed with cancer in 1998. Her sister, former ASU All-American Heather Farr, died from the disease in 1993.
"I'm not 100 percent just yet, but I'm feeling much better," Farr-Kaye said. "I'm very optimistic about the future."
It's going to be a long shot for Duke's Amanda Blumenherst, the reigning NCAA women's college golfer of the year and the U.S. Women's Amateur champion, to actually win the Sullivan Award, given to the top amateur athlete of the previous year. This is particularly the case given that 2008 was an Olympic year and other contenders include Nastia Liukin, the gymnastics All-Around gold medalist, and the USA men's 4x100 swimming relay team, which included some guy named Michael Phelps.
That said the Blue Devil senior has to be happy being named one of 10 semifinalists today for the prestigious award. Only twice has a golfer won the honor: Bobby Jones in 1930 and Lawson Little Jr. in 1935. Most recently USC's Jamie Lovemark was named a semifinalist for 2007.
Meanwhile, the general public can participate in the vote--fan voting counts for one-third of the overall voting--by going to USAToday.com (for the live link, click here).
Other semifinalists: Cynthia Barboza (Volleyball), Dara Torres (Swimming), Jonathan Horton (Gymnastics), Shawn Johnson (Gymnastics), Lopez Family (Taekwondo), USA Men's 4x100 Relay Team (Swimming), Erin Popovich (Paralympics Swimming), Tyler Hansbrough (Basketball), Sam Bradford (Football), Nastia Liukin (Gymnastics), Gerald "Buster" Posey (Baseball).
In the Feb. 23 issue of Golf World, my Amateur Spotlight story explored how Duke's streak of consecutive ACC women's titles might be coming to an end this April at 13. As I wrote in the magazine, it's not so much that the Blue Devils have fallen on hard times--although if the back problems that forced Alison Whitaker to sit out the last two rounds of this week's Central District Invitational persist, leaving Duke with just four healthy golfers, there will be definite issues in Durham, N.C.
No, it's the improved play of the rest of the conference's programs, most notably Virginia, Wake Forest and North Carolina, that suggests Duke's superiority is no longer a complex for the rest of the league. All three schools are ranked in the top 13 in the Golf World/NGCA coaches' poll and all have the depth to at least challenge, if not win, the ACC crown.
In talking to the coaches at each school, they all were quick to point out that Duke's benchmark has been what has pushed their programs to improve. "And a lot of those times in those years [Duke] was No. 1 in the country," said Wake Forest women's coach Dianne Dailey. "That's a pretty high standard. But we always kept trying to get there."
I'm particularly intrigued with the story out of Winston-Salem, N.C., and the Demon Deacons. At the start of the fall season, it looked like Wake Forest was anything but a serious national contender, finishing ninth at the NCAA Preview and 14th at the Mason Rudolph Championship. "We were not managing the course very well," Dailey, in her 21st year coaching at Wake, admitted. "We were making a lot of mental mistakes, a lot of bad decisions on the golf course."
After the Mason Rudolph, Dailey held a team meeting to address the issue, a discussion that became a turning point in the season; afterward the Demon Deacons proceeded to win the Lady Tar Heel Invitational and Landfall Tradition to close out the fall. They then started the spring by flying across the country and posting an impressive second-place finish at the Northrup Grumman Regionals Challenge in California.
Five Wake players--seniors Nannette Hill and Jean Chua, junior Dolores White, sophomore Natalie Sheary and freshman Cheyenne Woods--have had top-10 finishes in 2008-09, with Allie Bodemann also pushing for a starting spot.
According to Dailey, practices have been fun but more competitive than in recent years. A key reason for that increased energy has been the addition of assistant coach Robin Walton. You could make the argument that Walton, an assistant at Florida from 2000 to 2008, was the biggest off-season recruit Dailey landed.
"She's added a lot of new ideas [to practices]," Dailey said of Walton. "She has 20 years of playing experience and eight years of coaching experience. She's by far the most experienced assistant that I've had. She brings a lot of enthusiasm and imagination and creativity to practices. She's been a very important addition to our team."
Best of all is listening to Dailey herself. The Hall of Fame coach sounds very excited by her group, and by the prospect of coaching in the future. While some of her colleagues have decided to get out of the field, citing the longer hours necessarily on the recruiting trail, Dailey says she has never been more committed.
"I think I'm going to be doing this for a while," Dailey said. "I don't have any plans to leave any time soon. You know you work hard to build a team and a foundation that you can just keep building on. And I think we're at that point now, where we can just add one or two students every year that really want to be here, really want to work. It's taken me a while to get to that point . . . I'm a little bit of a slow learner here. But it's been fun."
Just a couple early observations following today's finish of the Northrup Grumman Regional Challenge, where Arizona State beat Wake Forest by 18 shots at Palos Verdes (Calif.) GC, with UCLA finishing 19 strokes back and USC coming in 21 behind (for complete results, click here):
1.) The spring ASU roster is significantly better than the fall roster.
It's amazing to think that when the Sun Devils lost arguably the best player in college golf through the fall, Anna Nordqvist. Still, without NCAA individual champion Azahara Munoz in the starting five (recovering from having a cyst removed from her wrist), the Sun Devils dusted a field that included 11 top-25 teams in the final fall Golf World/NGCA coaches' poll and five of the top-10.
J-frosh Carlota Ciganda had an impressive debut, finishing T-2 and looking as if she's having few problems adjusting to school, while transfer Jaclyn Sweeney also pulled down a top-20 finish. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Juliana Murcia (right) shows up with a standout performance, shooting one-over 214 to claim medalist honors by eight strokes. (Her total was almost 25 strokes better than the average 54-hole score for the tournament.)
"It's pretty amazing that we were able to come out on top and win by such a large margin without Aza and Anna," ASU coach Melissa Luellen said afterward. "It just shows that we've got some new depth and we're a new team."
2.) UCLA is still pretty darn good.
When my "Fab Five" comes out later this week, I'm still going to have the Bruins No. 1. It's no disrespect to ASU, but if you look at UCLA's performance you see that the team had five players finish in the top 13, including two in the top-seven (Ryann O'Toole and Tiffany Joh). Only problem was that O'Toole was playing as an individual, and Sydnee Michaels, a standout player in the fall, struggled to a T-34 showing. Swap out O'Toole and Michaels, and UCLA gets 11 strokes back. (Yeah, I know ... the Bruins still lose then by eight shots, but they lose because Murcia played out of her mind.)
3.) There's plenty of time to debate this.
As of now, ASU and UCLA are 1-1 head-to-head. Better yet, they will be in the same field in four more tournaments this spring before NCAA regionals.
Photo: Courtesy of Arizona State Sports Information
When the Pepperdine women, ranked 10th in the final Golf World/NGCA fall coaches' poll, tee it up next Monday out at Palos Verdes GC for the Northrop Grumman Regional Challenge, they'll play their spring opener without the newest member of their squad, Ayaka Kaneko. The 19-year-old from Honolulu, the 2007 U.S. Girls' Junior runner-up, has been nursing a sore left wrist since enrolling at the Malibu school last month. An MRI recently revealed Kaneko has a cyst, although doctors told her Wednesday the pain was unrelated, the result instead of a strain in the wrist.
"The good news is she's not going to need surgery," said Pepperdine women's coach Laurie Gibbs. "She just needs rest and to go through some treatment." Among the remedies doctors are using is acupuncture.
Initially Kaneko's problem sounded very similar to the one Arizona State's Azahara Munoz had recently suffered; the NCAA champion had a cyst removed from her wrist that had been causing her discomfort, which will cause her to miss the Northrop Grumman tournament as well.
Pepperdine's medical woes haven't been limited to Kaneko. Freshman Lisa McCloskey, who set the NCAA 54-hole scoring record last October at the Las Vegas Collegiate Showdown, suffered an appendicitis while with her family in Abu Dhabi during the winter vacation. The illness required that she have emergency surgery there just after Christmas. McCloskey has made a full recovery, but didn't begin to practicing until the past few weeks. Finally cleared two days ago by doctors to compete in the spring opener, McCloskey played her first full round of golf since the surgery on Wednesday.
Said Gibbs, with a sarcastic laugh: "I haven't been to the trainer this much in 15 years."
Seems hard to believe an amateur would pass up an invitation to a major championship, but a year after Stacy Lewis turned down a spot in the LPGA's Kraft Nabisco Championship, Amanda Blumenherst has done the same.
Like for Lewis in 2008, there is a reasonable explanation to Blumenherst's decision: The Duke senior intends to turn professional after the school year ends in May and wants to hold on to all the sponsor's exemptions she's allowed to take as a non-member of the LPGA Tour--six--until then. That way, Blumenherst has the best shot at possibly earning an LPGA card for 2010 without having to go to Q-School, hoping that she can make $137,542 (or the equivalent of No. 80 on last year's LPGA money list) in those six 2009 starts.
"Although very disappointed that Amanda will not be back at Mission Hills this year, we understand her decision and wish her the best," said Kraft Nabisco tournament director Gabe Codding.
Only four amateurs are now set to play in the event--Azahara Munoz, Tiffany Joh, Candace Schepperle and Alexis Thompson. In previous years as many as six or seven amateurs have competed in the tournament. Codding, however, said there has been no determination on whether it might invite any other amateurs to play in this year's event.
Photo credit: Duke photography