New course, same challenge for NCAA Women's field
__FRANKLIN, TENN.--__For 11 years the best teams in women's college golf have come to Vanderbilt Legends Club each fall to compete in the Mason Rudolph Championship. Familiarity with the North course wouldn't seem to be an issue, then, as the 6,377-yard, par-72 layout hosts the NCAA Women's Championship starting Tuesday.
Yet the complexion of the course that the 24 schools and six individuals will be facing this week outside of Nashville is different than the one they've played previously, thanks to some subtle changes that may well have an impact on who'll be crowned the national champion.
Last June the club replaced the roughly 20-year-old bent-grass greens with MiniVerde Bermuda, a potentially risky proposition with NCAAs looming so close on the horizon. When the course hosted the Mason Rudolph in September, the greens were noticeable harder than is typically the case (UCLA won with a nine-over 873 team score, the highest winning score since 2005).
Eight months later, the greens are still firm and fast, but coaches during Monday's practice round said were in agreement that they were much more receptive. "They're rolling well and are a good speed," said North Carolina coach Jan Mann. "They'll be fine."
Teams will also notice a handful of other minor yet meaningful tweaks to the course. The fourth hole, which ordinarily plays as a par 5, will be shortened to 404 yards and play as a par 4 while the par-4 ninth is played from the back tee and contested as a short 455-yard par 5.
Additionally, the NCAA committee expects to play a forward tee on the par-4 second in at least one and possible two rounds, shrinking the hole to just 250 yards. Players will be offered the opportunity to go for the green, guarded by water along the left side, off the tee.
The par-5 18th hole will also play from two different yardages during the week: 504 and 464, again offering a strategic nuance for the players to consider.
"I like the changes," said Arkansas coach Shauna Estes-Taylor. "I think it adds some interesting wrinkles."
So what teams are most capable of taking advantage of the wrinkles? As has become my annual tradition, here is how I see things shaking out, with basic odds for the majority of the field and most specifics for this year's Fab Five.
__75-1 to win the title
__Colorado, N.C. State, South Carolina
__Baylor, Pepperdine, Purdue, Stanford
__Arkansas, Florida, Michigan State, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Texas, Virginia
__Arizona State, Duke, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas A&M
__FIVE TO WATCH
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Odds to win:__ 25-1
Golf World/NGCA ranking: 13
Birdie: The pressure is off, contends coach Greg Allen, after the Lady Commodores qualified for nationals, saving themselves the embarrassment of hosting the championship while not actually playing in it. Local support should be high, which might give this squad an overall boost. Additionally, senior__Marina Alex__ is playing as well as she had since her standout sophomore campaign (71.6 average, 1 win, 7 top-fives) and is my favorite to capture the individual title.
Bogey: Despite being a talented group that's been ranked inside the top 15 if not the top 10 of the Golf World/NGCA coaches' poll most of the season, Vandy hasn't had that one breakout tournament this season that gives you the impression their ready for the spotlight. Maybe it comes this week, but it's asking a lot for a team to record its first victory of the season at the NCAA Championship.
Odds to win:__ 20-1
Golf World/NGCA ranking: 8
Birdie: The Tigers aren't afraid to go low, as evidence by their collective 398 birdies on the season (fourth best in the country) and their 74.59 average 18-hole individual score (fifth best). Meanwhile, defending NCAA individual champion Austin Ernst seems to have a penchant for playing well in big events.
Bogey: For as spectacular as the team has looked at times this year, Karen Bahnsen's group has also been known to lay a few eggs (11th at Mason Rudolph; 15th at SEC-Pac-12 Challenge). With a national title on the line, you'd like to have a little better idea what team might be showing up on the first tee.
Odds to win:__ 18-1
Golf World/NGCA ranking: 4
__Birdie:__The Trojans have seemed to come into their own as the spring has progressed, finishing no worse than fifth in any start during the semester while capturing the Battle at Rancho Bernardo title and just missing out on the Pac-12 crown. Same goes for their top performer, Lisa McCloskey, who shared medalist honors at the NCAA Central Regional, her third straight top-five performance. The senior from Texas has added motivation this week given that she had to sit out of nationals a year ago due to back problems.
__Bogey:__While playing better of late, Andrea Gaston's group doesn't seem to have the same swagger that it has carried in year's past. Coming to past national championships, USC has had the confidence to believe it would come out on top at the end of four days. Not sure they're quite there this time around.
Odds to win:__ 10-1
Golf World/NGCA ranking: 2
Birdie: There's lots of talent at the top of the lineup with Brooke Pancake,Stephanie Meadow and Jennifer Kirby leading the charge. There's also the disappointment of last year's trip to nationals, where the team was among the favorites yet finished in tied for eighth, a frustrating finish that may well be motivation for the next few days.
Bogey: The stumble at SECs, when the team finished third while posting their two worst 18-hole team scores of the season in the second and third rounds, suggests that while motivated to succeed, that doesn't necessarily mean it's going to happen.
Odds to win:__ 6-1
Golf World/NGCA ranking: 1
Birdie: The Bruins have never been out of a tournament all season, even after losing arguably their best player to the LPGA Tour mid-way through the year. The defending NCAA champions are as battle-tested as any group in the country and have the experience needed to claim the title.
Bogey: A fourth-place showing at Pac-12, when the squad was the clear favorite, suggested that the Bruins might only be neck and armpits above the rest of the country rather than head and shoulders.