By Brendan Mohler__
__ATHENS, GA.—__With its big, undulating greens and difficult pin locations, the University of Georgia GC held its own today, allowing only 19 subpar rounds on the first day of the NCAA Women's Championship. USC (four-under 284), San Jose State (-4) and Duke (-2) were the only teams that broke par, with formidable foes Alabama (E), UCLA (+1) and Purdue (+1) only five shots back of the lead.
"Our goal was to be very patient," said USC women's coach Andrea Gaston, whose squad has won five of its last six events and ranked No. 1 in the final Golf World/WGCA coaches' poll of the spring. "It's a 72-hole event, so you're always going to have a series of holes where you don't do so well. But you can turn it around with a few birdies."
The Trojans were led by freshman Annie Park's two-under 70 and one-under 71s from juniors Rachel Morris and Sophia Popov. While still impressive, those rounds wilt in comparison to the five-under 67 that San Jose State freshman Regan de Guzman posted in the morning wave, a round that included seven birdies.
"I was just having so much fun," said Guzman (right), whose team narrowly qualified for the tournament despite being seeded 19th going into the West Regional (only eight teams from each regional qualify).
When asked about the best part of her game, De Guzman humbly said, "My drives. And my putting. And every iron I hit was solid and flew at the target." She could have just said, "Everything."
De Guzman was the only San Jose State player to break par today, and she had some valuable advice for her teammates going forward. "I told them, Don't think about anybody's scores. Just play your game and everything will be okay.' This course will drive you crazy if you don't know how to handle it. Once you respect the course, the course will respect you."
De Guzman is two strokes clear of the field, with another freshman, Celine Boutier of Duke, sitting at three-under 69. Tied with Boutier is Alabama junior Stephanie Meadow, a favorite for national player-of-the-year honors.
"All I tried to do was not make any mental mistakes," said Meadow, a native of Northern Ireland whose list of accolades includes a Curtis Cup victory in 2012, the Women's British Amateur title and the East Regional crown less than two weeks ago at Auburn University Club.
Alabama coach Mic Potter, who knows a thing or two about victories having led his team to last year's title and wins in its last five events, had a more frank assessment of Meadow's game.
"Stephanie seems to always shoot under par," Potter said. "I think she has a good feel and confidence on this course. Combine her talent and comfort level and it makes for great things."
The University of Georgia course, a 6,372-yard Robert Trent Jones design, made a lot of players uncomfortable today. The course hosted the Web.com Tour's Stadion Classic less than three weeks ago, but the facility's GM, Dave Cousart, said it would be in even better shape this week due to the long winter's effect on the growing schedule. One look validates that statement. Fast, firm putting surfaces with severe slopes made for extra strokes around the greens.
In response to the recent diagnosis of Auburn head coach Kim Evans' ovarian cancer, pink ribbons were on the first and 10th tees for players to sport on their bags or hats. It was difficult to find a player without one. According to Auburn junior Diana Fernandez, Coach Evans will be on site Wednesday after recently undergoing surgery.
The threesome of USC's Sophia Popov, Alabama's Daniela Lendl and Duke's Celine Boutier, teeing off in the first threesome of the afternoon wave off the first hole, impressively finished the first round in exactly four hours. Asked about the pace, Popov said, "In Europe that's normal."
The University of Georgia GC has two interesting quirks. The ninth and 18th holes share a green, which makes for a unique finish, especially with players teeing off both nines. Also, the 17th and 18th holes are par 5s, meaning Friday's final moments will be filled with risk and unpredictability.