__BRYAN, TEXAS—For a player to win an NCAA individual title, she usually needs to be in possession of a hot putter. Suffice it to say, LSU's__Austin Ernst had that covered Thursday during the second round of the NCAA Women's Championship.
En route to a six-under 66 at The Traditions Club, the freshman from Seneca, S.C., made seven birdies from nearly a combined 75 feet, five from more than 10 feet. After an opening-round 72, Ernst had a commanding three-stroke lead over Purdue's Numa Gulyanamitta at the mid-way point of the national championship.
Gusty winds returned for a second straight day to the Texas plains, with low scores coming at a premium. Ernst's 66, one off the competitive course record set last September at the NCAA Preview, was three strokes clear of the next best score posted during the first 36 holes.
"It was pretty solid," Ernst said, breaking out a wide grin at the understatement.
Ernst made a slight swing adjustment prior to the round, finding she was a little too far off the ball at address. The change helped her put together a solid ball-striking round, one in which she missed only three greens.
And then her putter took over.
"I've been hitting the ball really well, but it's just a matter of getting one or two putts to fall," said Ernst, who in her last two starts posted a T-9 showing at the SEC Championship and a T-3 at the Central Regional. "When I make one, I get a little confidence and can make a few more."
Sporting a 73.71 average her rookie season, Ernst showed her potential earlier this spring when she claimed medalist honors at the Central District Invitational.
"I've seen this coming all year," said LSU women's coach Karen Bahnsen. "She's been working her tail off. It's good to see her make some putts."
Ernst's performance was a particular important one for the Tigers, as the next best score on the team was a 76 from Jacqueline Hedwall and first-team All-American candidate Megan McChrystal struggling with a 77. Still, LSU's 12-over 588 total left them in third place by day's end, four strokes behind second-round leader UCLA.
The Bruins followed up their opening-round 289 with a second-round seven-over 295, sophomore Tiffany Lua posting the low individual score with a 71. Coach Carrie Forsyth said the team collectively had a very good ball-striking round, but struggled around the greens.
"I don't know what it was, but I think we made a lot of silly mistakes, just didn't get the ball up and down very much," Forsyth said. "I don't know if the pins were a little tricky today. We missed some short putts. We have to make some adjustments, do a little bit better tomorrow."
That said, the Bruins still were in control as the 36-hole score they posted in the morning held up. Playing in the afternoon wave, defending NCAA champion Purdue gave some shots back to close its round, shooting a seven-over 295 for the day to leave them in second place at 11-over, three strokes back.
Also in the mix is host Texas A&M, which improved on its first-round score by a shot, posting a six-over 294 to sit in fourth place with a 13-over total. All week Aggie coach Trelle McCombs has been confident about her team but has been hesitant to set the bar too high, noting that a top-five finish given the circumstances and the field would be a great showing. However, expectations from the supportive gallery following the team might be rising.
All told, six teams are within eight shots of UCLA's lead, a tight race that could result in an exciting third round Friday.
"Let's be realistic," said Purdue coach Devon Brouse. "Somebody will take charge of the tournament tomorrow Some team will go out and take charge."
The questions is who.
Aside from Ernst, only four players were under par individually after 36 holes. Lua's two-under 142 was the only other sub-par performance from the teams that completed in the morning wave. The others—Gulyanamitta, Florida's Mia Piccio and Georgia's Marta Silva Zamora—posted their numbers in the afternoon, when the winds were only slightly stronger if that.
Silva Zamora had another solid ball-striking day but found her putter to be a bit inconsistent. The junior from Spain had three three-putt holes and missed a five-foot birdie try on her final hole but still shot a 71 to put her at two-under 142.
Ernst's preparation for the NCAA Championship after LSU's play at the Central Regional was hampered by having finals come the same week. Yet the freshman managed find, getting a 3.2 GPA. Asked, however, what number she preferred, the 3.2 or her 66 from the second round, Ernst didn't hesitate.