__FLOATING ALONG THE CUMBERLAND RIVER, TENN.--__In my job covering college golf, I don't pull for any particular team or individual to succeed. For one thing, it's not good for business--you try getting somebody to return a phone call if he or she thinks you're a little too cozy with the enemy. Plus the moment you start wishing for a particular outcome is the moment you've guaranteed it won't come true. Nope, I'll stick to being Switzerland, thank you very much.
That said, there is something I root for at every tournament I cover: a good story. It's why the 31st NCAA Women's Championship will be one I remember for a while. There wasn't just one fun tale to tell from last Friday's finish at Vanderbilt Legends Club but a few.
Oklahoma sophomore Chirapat Jao-Javanil, 90 seconds removed from signing for a final-round 70 that would ultimately secure her the individual title, pulling out her iPhone and speed dialing Lorelei Decker, a high school golfer from Oklahoma City with Stage II Hodgkin's lymphoma who she recently befriended, to make sure she had been following along online. Jao-Javanil's green-painted nails and green bracelet, the colors worn to show support for the cause, helped keep Decker in her thoughts throughout the tournament.
Alabama senior Brooke Pancake, the par-3 course where she played her first competitive golf tournament as a 10 year old no more than 25 yards away, standing over the longest 4 1/2 foot putt of her life to secure her school's first NCAA title. You didn't need to see the ball go dark to know the outcome, the piercing cheer from the Crimson Tide faithful giving it away.
Alabama Mic Potter, 30 seasons removed from starting his career as a college golf coach, holding the NCAA Championship trophy in his arms, looking as much like a kid on Christmas morning as any 57-year-old can look.
I honestly believe Potter when he told me he didn't feel like he had to win a national championship to consider his career complete. But I also believe what his good friend Dan Brooks, the Duke women's coach who owns five championships rings and is set to play a host of great golf courses with him in Scotland this coming week, told me just before the handed out the trophy on Friday.
"Everyone likes to win," Brooks said. "You don't want to coach your career and do it the way he's done it, and not win a national championship. That would be painful."
While I don't root for individuals to succeed, that doesn't mean I can't be happy for those that do. That's the case with Potter, who has been a valuable source of knowledge to me about the college game. I appreciate the time he has given so that I can have a better understanding of what coaching a golf team is actually like. I also appreciate that when he has disagreed with me on things I've written, he has been honest in letting me know and willing to agree to disagree without holding it against me.
With vindication having come his way, the decision in the summer of 2005 to leave Furman after more than 20 years coaching there and take the Alabama job, convinced he could turn the Crimson Tide program into a national power, is still no less a gamble today than it was at the start of last week. He already was in the NGCA Hall of Fame and could have stayed with the Lady Paladins for as long as he wanted. But a new challenge, and the opportunity that it presented, was too tantalizing to turn down. It's a message he's been able to share with every player he's recruited to Tuscaloosa: I was willing to take the risk to be at Alabama. Are you?
And now that his risk has been rewarded, well that's just plain cool.
A few other thoughts as I sit on a boat with some family friends in the 95-degree heat before flying off to Los Angeles for the NCAA men's championship:
Thank you Mother Nature, for not turning up the thermostat until the tournament's final day. Oh and giving the thunderstorms that often accompany this even the week off.
I can't tell you how impressed I am with how Virginia coach Kim Lewellen handled questions after the final round. Yes, her team's fourth-place finish, four strokes back of Alabama, matched the school's best ever finish at nationals, so there was still plenty of reason to smile. But their 23-over 1,175 total should have been five strokes lower--or one stroke better than champion Alabama--if not for a scorecard snafu in round one.
"If it had been the last day, maybe I'd be more [upset]," Lewellen said with no hesitation. "But because it was the first day, this could have put fire in their belly. Who knows, if this hadn't happened we might have finished 10th."
That's a healthy attitude to take.
The woman who incorrectly signed for a 4 on the fourth hole when she had made a 5, Elizabeth Brightwell, played her remaining 54 holes just five over par, arguably as impressive a finish as any player in the field given the circumstances. Had she been able to count her opening-round 72, she would have finished T-14 for the championship.
I only had 1,000 words for the game story I wrote in this week's issue of Golf World, and about 2,500 words of material. Unfortunately that means I didn't get a chance to touch on all the schools that were in reasonable reach of the top of the leader board during Friday's round. One group in particular that deserves mention is South Carolina. With a closing 293, the Gamecock finished in fifth place, five strokes back of the Crimson Tide, the best showing in school history. I honestly want to know what coach Kalen Harris says in May to her team because twice in the last three years she's gotten her squads to perform way above their usual standing, winning two East Regional titles and now coming within a five strokes of a national title. And then I want to know why she doesn't say it in October to help the team pick up it's first regular season title since 2005.
College golf is going to miss players like Giulia Molinaro. I know Arizona State senior final-round 79 wasn't how she wanted to end her career, but hopefully she realizes that's not how people will remember her final season. They'll instead recall the clutch performances you made knowing the Sun Devils were relying on you to step things up and be more mature now that Carlota Ciganda had turned pro.
With birdies on four of her last five holes, Duke junior Lindy Duncan went from T-21 to T-6 in the final standings Friday, ensuring that she finished inside the top eight in every tournament she played in in 2011-12. There was simply no other choice for Ping NGCA national player of the year.
Sorry to hear that Florida coach Jan Dowling is leaving the Gator program after three seasons, beginning the summer coaching carousel. Here's hoping Dowling stays in the profession.
Beth Ann Baldry of Golfweek wrote about this Friday night and I concur: it's neat to see some new teams become prime-time players in the sport.
They could hold NCAAs at Vanderbilt Legends Club every third year and I'd be good with that. Maybe the greens were a little firmer than you'd like, but tweaking par on fourth and ninth holes made the course very entertaining.
Lastly, every player in last week's field should read this column by 22-year-old Yale student Marina Keegan, which beautifully articulates the emotions of finishing school and entering the real world. Tragically, Keegan died in a car accident this past weekend, five days after her graduation.
I pass this along not to bring you down, but to get you thinking. Don't take for granted the time you've spent playing college golf, the education it's helped you receive and the friendships that it's allowed you to make. They're wonderful. Use them to make the most of every day.