Regardless of how hard "experts" like myself try to predict who is ready to play well and who isn't, inevitably there are a few who unexpectedly make a lasting impression in the first three months.
BIGGEST SURPRISE: PLAYER
Vince India, Iowa
Entering the fall, the senior from Deerfield, Ill., had a 73.45 career stroke average. In 2009-10, he had just one top-five finish and only three top-10s. Yet in the past three-plus months, India won two tournament titles while finishing T-5, T-7 and T-7 in his three other appearances, posting a 70.21 average in the process.
So what gives? Lets just say the 21-year-old has paid his dues since arriving in Iowa City in the fall of 2007. He hasn't been out of the starting lineup since his first semester, playing in 32 straight events. While his previous numbers didn't point to a huge surge come the fall of his senior season, his experience is an intangible that proved highly beneficial to the U of I efforts.
"He's a self-starter," says Mark Hankins, Iowa's coach. "He knows what he needs to work on and he pays attention to those areas as well as anyone. It's a nice luxury to have as a coach, because I can spend time attending to younger players knowing he's going to be taking care of his business."
So far in 2010-11, business is good.
Honorable mention:* Bank Vongvanij, Florida
It's not as if the 21-year-old senior has had a bad career with the Gators, posting six top-10 finishes in 15 total starts and a career 72.62 average. It's just that, well, he's only had 15 starts in his career prior to this fall, far fewer than what was expected of the Leadbetter Academy product who was a four-time AJGA All-American as a junior golfer. So it is then that three top-fives in three standout events, including a victory at the prestigious Isleworth Collegiate, makes some wonder, "Oh yeah, what ever happened to him?" The answer: "He's doing just fine, thank you."
Brooke Pancake, Alabama
An increase in red numbers has been a recurring theme in the women's game this fall, and the junior from Chattanooga, Tenn., is not only a shining example of the phenomenon but illustrates why the trend, in many cases, seems to be so prevalent.
Playing daily with All-Americans Camilla Lennarth and Jennifer Kirby back in Tuscaloosa during the 2009-10 season, Pancake managed to hold her own on the birdie count in practice, says Crimson Tide women's coach Mic Potter. Come tournament time, however, she struggled to post truly low scores; she would get under par early in a round only to play defensively toward the end as if to protect a 69 from becoming a 73 rather than trying to turn it into a 66.
This past fall, though, Pancake finally got sick of seeing her teammates posting all the rounds in the 60s and overcame the "fear" of going low. "She's gotten over the hurdle of getting four or five under par and then trying to keep it there and sort of backing off," Potter said. "Now it's to the point where she expects to shoot more birdies and go lower."
The stats bare that out. For the entire 2009-10 season, Pancake broke par in eight of her 32 rounds while posting a 73.56 average. This fall, she broke par in seven of her 12 rounds, including matching the school's 18-hole scoring mark (65) twice, and claimed a team-best 70.25 average. While having just one top-five finish in her entire college career before this fall, Pancake had two in her four starts, including her first career victory at the Tar Heel Invitational
Becoming comfortable with going low is "a tough barrier for a good player," says Potter. "It's often times the difference maker between where they're able to go in the game and not being able to accomplish their goals."
Honorable mention:* Jessica Wallace, Colorado
A change of scenery, and being reunited with her swing coach__Brent Franklin__, the Buffaloes assistant coach, has done wonders for the British Columbia native. After posting a 74.94 average last season at Pepperdine, Wallace has shot a 72.00 through five fall starts in Boulder, finishing no worse than T-13 while winning her first college tournament at the Heather Farr/CU Memorial. She also broke the school's 18-hole scoring mark with a 66 at the Alamo Invitational.
BIGGEST SURPRISE: TEAM
"This fall has been kind of a couple years coming," says Hawkeyes coach Mark Hankins, noting the fact that his starting five is a veteran lineup consisting of two seniors (India and Brad Hopfinger) and three juniors (Chris Brant,Barrett Kelpin and Bradley George) who have gained valuable experience as starters the past few seasons.
Still, winning four straight tournaments to close the fall season, smashing several school records in the process, was something only the true faithful in Iowa City likely saw coming. Particularly, too, after a T-6 finish in the Gopher Invitational to start the fall season.
"I think some of the expectations were weighing on us that first tournament," explains Hankins, whose squad was anxious to get things started after failing to advance out of regionals to the NCAA Championship last spring by just one stroke. After the performance in Minnesota, Hankins had a meeting with his players to try to loosen things up.
"I just kept stressing to them guys quit worrying about the big picture here," he says. "Go try to get it done yourself. And that leads to a good team score and a win."
Iowa's secret is simple: team depth. All five players can get the job done at any time, says Hankins, who believes the fact that everybody can cover for one another will help the Hawkeyes go a long way come the spring.
Honorable mention:* Florida
As I wrote earlier this fall, the Gators aren't necessarily known as a team that starts out quick. The last time coach Buddy Alexander's squad won a fall tournament was in 2006, which made U of F's first-place showing at Olympia Fields in September an eye-opener. The team then followed it up with a runner-up finish at the Jerry Pate and a T-3 at Isleworth. Moreover, Gators fans have got to like the fact that four starters (Vongvanij, Tyler McCumber,Andres Echavarria and Phillip Choi) have stroke averages of 72.22.
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In the fall of 2009 the Tigers won the season-opening Hooters Collegiate Match Play title, and had many me if it was a fluke or a sign of things to come. Thanks to illness, injuries and other assorted reasons, the answer turned out to be the former, as the team managed just one other top-five finish the rest of the season.
Fast forward, then, to this fall and a one-stroke loss to Alabama at the NCAA Fall Preview followed by a two-stroke win at the Mason Rudolph. Once again the same question surfaced regarding the ladies from the bayou? Is LSU for real this time?
Thankfully for Tiger fans, this year's group (Megan McChrystal,Tesha Teachman,Mary Michael Maggio,Jacqueline Hedwall,Amalie Valle and Austin Ernst) doesn't appear to be a mirage. Another convincing runner-up finish at the Tar Heel offsets the disappointing 13th-place showing (sans their top two players) at the Pac-10/SEC Challenge.
The difference between this year's squad and last year's? LSU coach Karen Bahnsen says it's a simple one. "It's depth," she notes. "I have six players in the lineup that can go low. You'll see some times with three or four. I have a legitimate six."
To wit, here's a look at the scoring averages of Bahnsen's charges compared to a year ago. If the 2009-10 season was a bust in the short run, it may well have been the learning experience LSU needed to excel in the long run.
PLAYER Fall 2010 avg. 2009-10 avg.
McChrystal, Sr. 68.89 72.80
Teachman, Jr. 71.33 73.70
Maggio, Soph. 72.33 76.40
Hedwall, Jr. 73.92 75.60
Valle, Sr. 76.00 76.30
Ernst, Fr. 72.50 DNP
Honorable mention:* Notre Dame
Last spring was one to forget for the Fighting Irish, who finished third at the Big East Championship and no better than eighth in any other start. That includes an 17th-place showing at the NCAA Central Regional, where senior Annie Brophy was DQd for giving inccorect scores during her final round to volunteers working on the live leader board. Yet this fall, Susan Holt's squad claimed four top-five finishes in five starts, including wins in their first two events (Mary Fossum, Notre Dame Invite), earning the 19th spot in the final Golf World/NGCA coaches' poll of the fall.