124th U.S. Open

Pinehurst No. 2

The Loop

What we learned this fall

November 09, 2006

“They don’t hand out the NCAA Championship trophy in November.”

On the list of clichés used by college golf coaches, it’s among the more popular, thanks in large part to its versatility. Those with teams that have started strong bring it up to suggest they haven’t won anything just because they played well in the fall. Those with teams that have struggled trot it out to say we’ve got plenty of time to get on a roll.

Of course the reality is they don’t hand out the hardware in the fall. Still, that doesn’t mean, you can’t see what possible storylines might play out as the post-season approaches. With context and perspective, the first half of a college golf season is useful in understanding what to keep an eye on in the coming months.

So what did we learn this fall about college golf? Here are five lessons to put away as you favorite teams take their annual winter break:

1) There are dominant teams that are going to runaway from the rest of the pack.

As much as coaches have professed in recent years that there are dozens of men’s and women’s programs with the talent to win a national championship, the truth is that the college game of late has been witness to bully golf—a program or two on both the men’s and women’s sides coming to an event and often winning as much on reputation as talent. For the men it has been Georgia and Oklahoma State, the past two NCAA champs, that have had their way with the opposition. On the women’s side, everything has revolved around Duke.

Yet if the past few months have showed us anything it’s that the parity everyone is so fond of finally has become reality. Consider that five different men’s schools garnered first-place votes in the most recent Golf World men’s coaches poll, the most this late in a season since the magazine resumed the poll seven seasons ago. Just three top-25 teams have more than two wins (Alabama, 3; Stanford, 3; Louisville, 4) while 12 have at least one win. As for the women, only one top-25 school has more than two wins (Denver, 4) and 12 teams have been victorious this fall.

Particularly impressive, too, is that the previously dominant programs haven’t necessarily slipped, but rather other schools have caught up. “At times there was a feeling that you couldn’t touch the elite teams, but when schools did that early this fall, it gave everybody else this psychological lift,” said Tennessee women’s coach Judi Pavon. “If Georgia could beat Duke [in the women’s game], well maybe we can too.”

2) Despite slow starts defending champions Oklahoma State and Duke will be in contention at nationals.

Having a target on your back isn’t always the most comfortable piece of clothing to wear, as the members of the Cowboys men’s squad and Blue Devils women’s team can certainly tell you after the past few months, both having lost their place at the top of the Golf World polls. Yet there is something about these two programs, and in particular their coaches, Mike McGraw and Dan Brooks, that quite likely relishes the fact they have looked vulnerable during the fall season. For one thing, it offers a platform to motivate players, something these two can do with the best of them.

Case in point: Each team’s triumph at their respective match-play tournaments in recent weeks. The victories were hardly coincidences, allowing both programs to go into the winter break on a positive note. More importantly, they sent messages to the rest of the college world that they aren’t going to give up their NCAA trophies without a fight.

3) Impact freshmen are fewer and far between.

In years to come we’ll look back on the Class of 2009 with a bit of nostalgia and awe for how quickly they adapted to the college game as freshmen a year ago. On the men’s side six players—NCAA champion Jonathan Moore of Oklahoma State, Florida’s Billy Horschel, UCLA’s Erik Flores, Georgia’s Brian Harman, Georgia State’s Mark Haastrup, and Georgia Tech’s Cameron Tringale—were first or second team All-Americans. On the women’s side, Duke’s Amanda Blumenherst was the national player of the year, joined by seven other first-year players named first or second team All- Americans—UNLV’s Da Sol Chung, UCLA’s Tiffany Joh and Jane Park, Florida State’s Caroline Westrup, Vanderbilt’s Jacqui Concolino, Georgia’s Taylor Leon and Arizona State’s Azahara Munoz and Jennifer Osborn.

“It was just amazing how you had all these kids jump right in and contribute,” Georgia women’s coach Todd McCorkle noted this past summer. “We all got spoiled. I’m not sure you can really expect to see that happen every year.”

Indeed, for the Class of 2010, the talent is there but so is the traditional need for time to adjust to the college game. USC’s __Jamie Lovemark __(one win, 70.5 stroke average) currently stands out among the men’s players while on the women’s side Stephanie Sherlock at Denver (two wins) and Anna Nordqvist at Arizona State (three top-10s, 71.89 average) have put together the start of likely All-American caliber seasons. No doubt talents such as Stanford’s Jordan Cox, UCLA’s Sydnee Michaels and others will have strong college careers. It’s just that it might take a little longer than immediately for them to get settled.

4) The SEC is the toughest conference, combined for both men and women in the country.

With the top-ranked Alabama men and Georgia women setting the pace, the debate over which league offers the stiffest opposition begins and ends in the down south. Along with the Crimson Tide, Florida (No. 2) and Georgia (No. 5) are in the top five in the men’s rankings while in the women’s rankings the Bulldogs are joined in the top 10 by Auburn (No. 5), Tennessee (No.7) and Vanderbilt (No. 8).

“We’ve got a pretty dynamic group of coaches in our conference right now,” Florida men’s coach Buddy Alexander noted earlier this year. “The schools are essentially the same and everybody is keeping up with the Jones as far as facilities are concerned.”

Critics will bring up the Pac-10 and ACC and sure they too each have 10 men’s and women’s schools ranked in the top 25 in the two polls. Yet the SEC brings more depth as 14 programs total received votes in the most recent poll compared to 12 in the other conferences.

5) Traditional national contenders are returning to prominence.

With three victories in five fall starts, the Stanford men’s golf team is back on the national stage, a credit to the work of third-year coach Conrad Ray for returning respect to the program after a decade of struggles. Meanwhile, Texas’ win at the Isleworth/UCF Invitational was the first in more than two years for the Longhorns and points to bigger things to come.

On the women’s side, Vanderbilt’s Martha Freitag has guided the Commodore to two wins after watching her team fail to qualify for the NCAA Championship the past two seasons. With the addition of transfers Alison Walshe and Mary Jacobs, Arizona too has crept back into the top-10 of the college rankings. Their strong play has each of these four teams in the hunt for the national championship.

Of course, they don’t hand out the NCAA title in November.