__DAYTONA BEACH, FLA.—__With the walk from the press center at LPGA International to the first tee on the Legends Course feeling like its about a half mile in length, I’ve had some time to think about what might take place at this week’s NCAA Women’s Championship while watching the 24 participating teams get in their final practice before tomorrow’s opening round. And yet I’m still not totally convinced how to answer the riddle I first posed in last week’s issue of Golf World.
As I run down the final Golf World/NGCA coaches’ poll, I believe there are nine different schools with the talent and, more importantly, the depth to win this week along the Florida coast: Arizona State, Duke, Georgia, Pepperdine, Auburn, Vanderbilt, Southern California, Oklahoma State and Stanford. Only five of these schools, though, have a winning percentage of over 55 percent against teams competing here in Daytona:
Duke, 60-9, .870
Arizona State, 56-12, .820
Georgia, 48-14-2, .770
Auburn, 35-24, .590
Pepperdine, 31-21-2, .590
Pepperdine won twice this year and has eight top-five finishes in nine starts. Eileen Vargas shined a year ago at nationals (T-4), but has struggled during her senior season with a 74.6 average. Picking up the slack has been Misun Cho, who has posted a 73.3 average with two wins and four top-five finishes as a freshman. Where the Waves get hurt is that their average drop score this season has been a 79.19. It’s not the highest mark of the top teams in the country, but with only Cho consistently shooting low scores, it might be just a bit too high. (Late word Monday from an NCAA official, meanwhile, was that a Pepperdine player had gotten sick and was heading to the local emergency room.)
Two months ago, I watched Auburn win impressively at the Liz Murphey Collegiate Classic. Yet in the three starts since then, the Tigers have finished seventh (Bryan National), eighth (SEC Championship) and fourth (East Regional). I think Kim Evans is among the best coach in the women’s game without a NCAA title to her credit, but I am not sure she’ll be able to get slumping Abigale Schepperle or Margaret Shirley to return to form in time.
The fact that Georgia didn’t miss a beat at the Central Regional, finishing second to Southern California while in the midst of the turmoil caused by the resignation of coach Todd McCorkle, says a lot about the Bulldogs' mental toughness. And with Taylor Leon posting three top-five finishes in her last four starts and a season-long 72.35 average, the team has a standout player that can lead them to victory. I think Leon will be in contention well into the final day for medalist honors, but my gut says the Bulldogs will run out of steam at the end.
So, I’m left, then, with Duke and Arizona State, a match-up we’ve been waiting for since February when the Sun Devils beat out the Blue Devils at the Arizona Wildcat Invitational to even their head-to-head record at 1-1.
What Duke has going for it are experience and momentum. Four of the starting five from last year’s NCAA title winner are back, including standout Amanda Blumenherst, a favorite to win national player of the year honors for a second straight year. Clutch players Jennie Lee and Anna Grzebien (2005 NCAA medalist) give the Blue Devils three golfers that can post truly low numbers under pressure. In case anyone needs any proof of that, recall Duke's last competitive round, in which the Blue Devils posted a 16-under 272 at the East Regional, a school record for 18 holes that helped them claim their seventh regional title and sixth win of the season.
The delicious fact, however, is that Arizona State’s top three can hang with Duke’s. Freshman Anna Nordqvist has had an immediate impact on the ASU squad, posting nine sub-70 rounds this season. The Swedish native has complimented sophomores Jennifer Osborn and Azahara Munoz, all-Americans in their own right, allowing Melissa Luellen’s squad to grab the top ranking and win five tournaments, including the Pac-10 title.
Where the Sun Devils have a weakness is in their No. 5 spot. After Juliana Murcia, Luellen has struggled to get a solid fifth number as ASU has an average drop score of 79.5. If senior__Lindsay Anderson__ can come through with a few solid rounds, ASU will have more than a fighting chance.
From talking to coaches and players today, it seems the Legends Course is playing a little easier than it did last fall when it hosted the NCAA Preview, where Duke finished second and Arizona State came in sixth. (Georgia was the winner.) While the course is longer—measuring 6,351 yards—there’s less rough and the greens are running pure.
If the course was playing tougher, I’d go with Duke. But I have a hunch that this is the year ASU earns its seventh NCAA title, and Luellen gets her first as a coach after winning medalist honors as a player in 1988. Individually, maybe I'm an optimist, but I think we'll see a Blumenherst/Nordqvist/Leon showdown with Blumenherst edging out her two rivals.