__WILMINGTON, N.C.—__So how do you know that the NCAA Women's Championship is about to get started?
Look for the storm clouds.
This is my ninth time covering nationals and with the exception of last year at Caves Valley, every championship has had golfers dodging rain drops (or worse) for at least a portion of the tournament. Suffice it to say, I packed my rain pants for a reason … although if my boss sees an umbrella on my expense account, I hope he'll let it slide.
On the bright side, it was a warm rain that was falling Monday morning at CC of Landfall, as the 24 teams competing this week for the national title played a second practice round in 75 degree temps before the tournament begins in earnest Tuesday. And while the forecast calls for the threat of rain the next few days, things are expected to improve as the week progresses.
Needless to say, the weather makes getting a true assessment regarding what kind of shape any individual team is in on the eve of the year's biggest event a bit troublesome. But that's not as maddening as the fact that, having spent the past eight months talking about the "Big Three" of UCLA, Arizona State and USC, the foregone conclusion that either the Bruins, the Sun Devils or the Trojans would win the title no longer seems so foregone or conclusive.
By my estimation, as many as seven schools seem to be reasonable candidates to win the title this week, and that's leaving out Alabama, which could prove to be a bad decision on my part considering the impressive run the SEC champions have been on this spring. But at some point you've got to start thinning the herd.
So here are my Lucky 7, listed in descending order of how confident I am that they will emerge as champions.
__Golf World/NGCA ranking: 4
Top fives: 9
__Overall head-to-head record:__130-32-3/.797
Record vs. NCAA field: 55-20-3/.724
__Starting five:__Cydney Clanton, Jr.; Patricia Sanz, Soph.; Candace Schepperle, Sr.; Haley Wilson, Soph.; Carlie Yadloczky, Fr.
Birdie: Clanton and Schepperle just might give the Tigers the best one-two punch in the country.
Bogey: An inconsistent spring results in a fifth-place finish at SECs and an apparent loss of confidence. The Tigers' T-3 finish at the East Regional likely helped reverse the slide, but is it too little too late?
__[#image: /photos/55ad72c4add713143b424387]|||Thumbnail image for Purdue 2008-09 logo.gif|||
Golf World/NGCA ranking: 8
Top fives: 9
Overall head-to-head record: 148-31-1/.825
Record vs. NCAA field: 34-22-1/.605
__Starting five:Laura Gonzalez-Escallon, Fr.; Numa Gulyanamitta, Jr.; Thea Hoffmeister, Jr.; Maude-Aimee LeBlanc, Jr.; Paula Reto, Fr.
__Birdie: While having lost the best player in school history, Maria Hernandez, to graduation, the Boilermakers didn't appear to miss a beat, winning a third straight Big Ten title in impressive fashion.
Bogey: No northern school has won the NCAA title in the event's 29-year history.
__Golf World/NGCA ranking: 5
Top fives: 7
Overall head-to-head record: 121-25-5/.818
Record vs. NCAA field: 51-21-3/.700
__Starting five:Kim Donovan, Jr.; Lindy Duncan, Fr.; Courtney Ellenbogen, Fr.; Stacey Kim, Fr.; Alison Whitaker, Sr.
__Birdie: The Blue Devils claimed the team title at CC of Landfall last November when the course hosted the NCAA Fall Preview.
Bogey: Unlike the three-peat title teams of the mid-2000s, this Blue Devils squad is a bit lean on NCAA Championship experience.
__Golf World/NGCA ranking: 7
Top fives: 7
Overall head-to-head record: 126-29-0/.813
Record vs. NCAA field: 51-25-0/.671
__Starting five:Isabele Boineau, Soph.; Nikki Koller, Soph.; Alejandra Llaneza, Jr.; Sherlyn Popelka, Fr.; Margarita Ramos, Soph.
__Birdie: As if winning the Pac-10 title could really have been considered a fluke, the Wildcats went out and took the West Regional crown by nine strokes over top-ranked UCLA.
Bogey: Having done a great job of not letting the distraction of having their head coach go AWAL right before the post-season, keeping it out of your mind for almost two months is easier said than done.
__Golf World/NGCA ranking: 1
Overall head-to-head record: 145-11-2/.924
Record vs. NCAA field: 64-9-2/.867
__Starting five:__Brianna Do, Soph; Stephanie Kono, Soph; Tiffany Lua, Fr.; Sydnee Michaels, Sr.; Glory Yang, Jr. __
Birdie: No team has had a more consistent season, with the Bruins never failing to finish in the top four in any tournament.
Bogey:__ For all the momentum UCLA seemed to build with late spring wins at Texas and Arizona State, failing to close the deal at the Pac-10s and the West Regional might let a bit of doubt creep in.
__Golf World/NGCA ranking: 2
Top fives: 9
Overall head-to-head record: 119-21-2/.845
Record vs. NCAA field: 59-16-2/.779
__Starting five:Carlota Ciganda, Soph.; Jennifer Johnson, Fr.; Giulia Molinaro, Soph.; Juliana Murcia, Sr.; Jaclyn Sweeney, Jr.
__Birdie: The defending NCAA champions are healthy after the fluky illness that took out Molinaro and Johnson at Pac-10s.
Bogey: For as talented as ASU's starting five is, no player has gotten on that stellar run this season, a la Azahara Munoz in 2008 and Ciganda in 2009.
__Golf World/NGCA ranking: 6
Top fives: 8
Overall head-to-head record: 121-37-0/.766
__Record vs. NCAA field:__50-28-0/.641
__Starting five:Belen Mozo, Sr.; Inah Park, Soph.; Lizette Salas, Jr.; Jennifer Song, Soph.; Cyna Rodriguez, Fr.
__Birdie: If there was a "quality" win category, USC would lead it having claimed their four titles at arguably four of the toughest events on the college calendar (Mason Rudolph, Northrup Grumman, Bruin/Wave, Central Regional).
Bogey: A 14th-place finish at CC of Landfall during the NCAA Fall Preview, even if it came without Song in the lineup and with Mozo having to drop out of the tournament, can't help but leave a few doubts in players minds.
In the end, I feel like the Trojans are the most likely school to claim the title. I see Song wanting to get a measure of revenge after losing the individual NCAA title on the last hole at Caves Valley last May, and Salas and Mozo showing that they are legitimate All-American taletns. Additionally, coach Andrea Gaston has two NCAA championship already to her credit, giving her the authority to be able to speak to her charges and convince them of what needs to happen this week for the Women of Troy to claim title No. 3.