My apologizes in advance for the delay in posting a recap from the NCAA Women's Championship. I had a nice time in the Bryan/College Station area—big thumbs up to Freebirds for anyone looking for a good burrito—but found a cold tucked away in carry-on luggage on the flight back home. I don't want to hide behind any excuses, however, least I not show the same class that those who I covered demonstrated last week.
Indeed, among the memories I'll have from my 10th trip to nationals (starting to feel old) is the fact that despite what turned out to be a disappointing afternoon for his Purdue team, Boilermaker coach Devon Brouse was a stand-up individual. His squad had caught UCLA on the final day at The Traditions Club, only to see the rally go for naught, the Bruins making a few birdies coming in and then the unfortunate scorecard snafu with Thea Hoffmeister essential sealing the final results. It was the reverse of what happened a year ago, when Purdue had a lead entering the last 18 holes, only to hold off a hardcharging USC on the final hole, so Brouse was very familiar with both sides of the drama that was unfolding.
"I think six, seven shots is a dangerous lead," Brouse said, speaking of the "advantage" UCLA had entering the round. "It's hard to play aggressive. We were pulling them in, I thought. That's when you really credit them for fighting it out. If anything, credit them for being hungry enough to fight it out."
The quote came not long after Brouse had consoled Hoffmeister, a smart-as-a-whip senior who felt devastated by the turn of events that happened in what she'll sadly remember as her final round of college golf. Hoffmeister's scorecard had her down for a stroke more than she shot on the 12th hole and a 5 instead of a 6 on the 18th. The final total still added up to a 75, but because she signed a scorecard with a number on a hole that was less than what she shot (the score on 18), she had to be disqualified.
"I've never done anything like that before coach, I'm so sorry," said a tearful Hoffmeister. Brouse quickly opened up his arms, responding with a hug and letting her know that it was OK.
Truth be told—and thankfully so—the mistake didn't really affect the ultimate outcome. While Brouse might not have encouraged Maude-Aimee LeBlanc to go for the par-5 18th in two had he know her score was going to count when Hoffmeister's was thrown out (she mishit the shot and eventually made a bogey), had she laid up, hit her approach close and made birdie, LeBlanc would have shot a 75 (same as what Hoffmeister would have posted) and Purdue still loses by two strokes.
It's a scene I don't want to see again in the near future; heartbreaking moments are not something I enjoy covering as a journalist. But to see the grace with which Brouse carried himself, and in turn demonstrated to his squad as they collective congratulated UCLA at the end of play, was impressive nonetheless.
It wasn't just Brouse and the Boilermakers made a point to applaud the Bruins as the sun set Saturday night. Still hanging around the 18th green were both the USC and Alabama squads, set to shake the hands of which ever team was going to be victorious.
Most certainly the moment was bittersweet for both schools, each believing at the start of the week it was going to be the one to lay claim to the national championship trophy. But both struggled over the first two days, neither sitting inside the top 15 after 36 holes. Impressively the Trojans and Crimson Tide each fought back, eventually finishing fifth and T-8, respectively.
"The last two rounds, they reacted very positively to what went on the first two days, and they started playing better golf," said Alabama coach Mic Potter after the final round. "The expectations were pretty high coming in, and if we are going to be a top program, we have to learn to deal with those expectations in a better way."
"It happens. I've been there, more than once," noted UCLA women's coach Carrie Forsyth, relating to the pressure of coming into nationals as a front runner only to struggle during the biggest week of the year. "It's not fun. You feel like you've done everything you can. i know the girls feel like that. They feel like they've done everything they can to be prepared. And you get out and for whatever reason, not putting as well, not hitting it as good, whatever it is, there are a lot of intangibles in our sport. It happens to everybody."
Maybe down the road Andrea Gaston and Potter will feel some solace in those words. Both USC and Alabama had only one senior in their starting five this year, so both have every reason to believe the experience from the past week can help them be tougher next year.
All few other random thoughts before I close up the notebook and prepare to head to Stillwater for the men's championship:
* Lucky is what the NCAA women's golf committee got that they were able to finish up the 72 hole event Saturday night, with not much more than 10 minutes to spar. All it took was a less-than-two-hour weather delay during the third round to nearly cause the tournament to be extended by a day; there was no wiggle room Saturday for any similar stoppage of play. The crossed fingers and silent prayers for an on-time finish could be potentially avoided if the committee considered instituting a 54-hole cut for the event.
Of course that's my knee-jerk reaction to what took place this past week, and talking informally with a handful of coaches last Saturday, I heard several tell me that the chance to work their way up the leader board is critical for programs and coaches alike because results at nationals might be tied to bonuses or special programs offered by equipment companies.
OK, so there is an economic impact, then, to shortening the NCAA championship and of course there's the NCAA's stance allowing all 24 participating schools to play all 72 holes benefits the student-athletic experience. I think neither of these reasons, however, are so air-tights as to not warrant a least a little discussion about a cut.
In deference to those that are still contending for the title, a 54-hole cut to the low 15 schools would be advisable to prevent a repeat of what happened Saturday, where the teams in the lead groups (UCLA, Purdue and Virginia) whose top players teed off at 3:09 p.m. local time, were playing against the clock in arguably the most important round of their college careers. I'm all for providing a good experience for those who are competing at nationals, but if it comes at the expense of the outcome of the championship, there seems to be a need to rethink the schedule.
* I must admit, I didn't think LSU's Austin Ernst, the newly crowned NCAA individual champion, had it in her. After watching her third round crumble when she made triple bogeys on the ninth and 12th holes Friday afternoon, seeing what had been a four-stroke lead turn into a four-stroke deficit in about 80 minutes time, I suspected that Ernst's chance at winning the individual title were about as good seeing the staff at The Traditions Club wear burnt orange during the final round. I had even started writing for this very column about how "despite the third round, Ernst had the makings of a solid player" and "would learn from the experience." Little did I know how quickly she would be able to bounce back for the moment.
"Two bad swings, that's really all it was," Ernst said after shooting a final-round 66 to claim medalist honors, when asked about how she managed to bounce back from her 77.
Now, I hear players all the time repeat the "coach-speak," saying how they simply put things in the past and move forward. It sounds fine and dandy, but in many cases it's not to be believed. Given Ernst's turnaround on Saturday, however, you have to credit her with being more than simply a good ball-striker who had a hot putter. You have to call her one cool cat.
*__ I like the selection of Georgia's Marta Silva Zamora as the national player of the year. If not for a balky putter at The Traditions Club, the junior from Spain might actually have also walked off with the NCAA title (her one-under 287 put her T-4). Of all the top candidates for the honor, Silva Zamora was surprisingly the only one to actually contend in the individual race, which I think put her over the top. Silva Zamora is excited to be returning to school for her senior year next fall. "I wish I could stay for [a fifth year]," she said last week. So too does Georgia coach Kelley Hester, seeing that UGa hosts NCAAs on their course in 2012.
*__ Amazing that five holes-in-one were made during the championship, all coming in the final 36 holes. Can't say that I've ever seen that before.
*__ Not so amazing that four of the six golfers playing as individuals finished in the top 12 at the conclusion of the event. Aside for Silva Zamora, Michigan State's Caroline Powers (T-6), Duke's Lindy Duncan (T-8) and North Dakota State's Amy Anderson (T-12) all made their schools proud with their play and also helped fuel the notion that playing as an individual might be an advantage in winning the indy title because you don't have the conflict with doing what's good for the team and what's good for the individual to worry about.
*__ Can we stop downgrading Anderson's performance in college golf (10 wins in her first two years) because she doesn't play the caliber schedule at North Dakota State that other players do at higher profile schools? Anderson qualified for postseason as an individual for the second straight year, then finished T-11 at the West Regional and T-12 at nationals. Oh, and then she qualified for the U.S. Women's Open on Monday. I don't care who she plays for, the girl can play.
* I'll close with two quotes from UCLA's Forsyth that she said while celebrating in the gloaming behind the 18th green with her team Saturday:
"It's huge for us. We had a great season. Unfortunately at the end of the year, this is the one everybody wants to win. Even if you have a great season, you don't win this one you always kind of walk away with a sour taste in your mouth. So I'm just really proud.">
I think this is the case of winning a national championship in almost any sport, but I feel like golf in particularly has a sadly gruel way of making the last week of the season the be all/end all.
"You know the first time is amazing, but after the first time you wonder if you can ever do it again. If you can ever match that team. It's awesome in its own way, but it's completely different. It's great.">
This was Forsyth's response when asked to compare the feeling of winning this time to what she felt in 2004, when she first coached UCLA to a national championship. I don't know what I'm so struck by this quote, but I am. It suggests that winning isn't actually something that's taken for granted.
That's good to hear.