The Loop

Two for the show at Caves Valley

OWINGS MILLS, Md.--The chatter was light and the smiles were plentiful as several competitors got in some last-minute work on the practice range at Caves Valley GC Monday afternoon. Rest assured the same isn't likely to be the case come Tuesday morning when the 28th NCAA Women's Championship begins in earnest.

Tom Fazio's undulating par-72 course just northwest of downtown Baltimore will play to a sturdy 6,443 yards for the 24 schools in the field, and by the looks of the gnarly rough, it would appear the superintendent misplaced the keys to the mowers sometime early last week.

"It's really challenging," said Azahara Munoz, the defending NCAA individual champion and a recent graduate in psychology from Arizona State, having sat in triple-digit heat to hear President Obama's commencement speech in Tempe last week. "The course is long, and the rough is like nothing I've ever seen. The greens are hard. It's going to be tough."

After a slight pause, the 21-year-old Spaniard offered one other interesting thought.

"But I like it like that."

Indeed, the best players don't shy away from the test that a course such as Caves Valley presents, but embrace it, which is why the four-day, 72-hole tournament will have its fair share of excitement even if it doesn't have many red numbers.

"The course is going to identify the best teams," said Denver coach Sammie Chergo, whose Pioneer squad comes into nationals having won the East Regional. "That's what a championship is all about."

With all due respect to Chergo's squad, or to the defending NCAA team champions, USC, it is the winners of the West and Central Regional--Arizona State and UCLA--that most people are "identifying" as the teams to beat. The Sun Devils, ranked No. 1 in the final Golf World/NGCA coaches' poll, and the Bruins, ranked No. 2, have compete in the same tournament six times during the 2007-08 season, with their head-to-head record standing at 3-3.

So it is that this year's national championship has the feel of deciding Game 7.

Finding real differences between the two favorites is like trying to decide which tastes better, pizza or ice cream. It all depends on what suits your palette. Consider, for instance, that each school won its respective regional title by the same 19-stroke margin.

With her team winning five times this season, including a Pac-10 triumph over UCLA in their most recent match-up, ASU coach Melissa Luellen can count on Munoz, who posted a 71.47 average in her final collegiate season. Meanwhile, senior Jennifer Osborn, sophomore Jaclyn Sweeney and junior Juliana Murcia all sport stroke averages of 74.6 and lower. Yet it's been the play of former British Women's Amateur champion Carlota Ciganda that has grabbed the headlines of late. The freshman from Spain enrolled at school in January and had four top-10 finishes in five starts before winning the individual titles at the Pac-10 Championship and West Regional.

That said, ASU doesn't have the monopoly on depth. All five players in Bruins coach Carrie Forysth's lineup have top-10 finishes to their credit this season, with sophomore Glory Yang (Topy Cup), junior Sydnee Michaels (Mason Rudolph), freshman Stephanie Kono (UCF Challenge) and sophomore ____Maria Jose Uribe (Central Regional) each winning a tournament while helping UCLA claimed six team victories.

Where ASU can claim a legitimate advantage is in familiarity with the course. The Sun Devils won at Caves Valley last September at the NCAA Preview, an event UCLA did not play. Another potential edge could be in the recent performance of each squad's graduating senior All-American. Munoz, has had four top-10s since recovering from January surgery to remove a cyst in her right wrist. Conversely, UCLA's Tiffany Joh, a two-time U.S. Women's Amateur Public Links champion, has yet to have a top-five since losing to Munoz in a playoff at nationals last May.

Toss in the impressive recent play of Ciganda, who seems to be a logical choice to claim medalist honors, and the Sun Devils look to be a reasonable pick to claim an NCAA record seventh women's title, but just their first since 1998.