BRADENTON, FLA. -- Everywhere you turned late Wednesday afternoon at The Concession G.C. you saw the usual emotions on display from coaches and players and family that accompany the conclusion of the NCAA Women's Championship.
Cheers, tears, elation and relief.
That they used match play to decide the women's team champion for the first time in NCAA history didn't change any of that. On the contrary, it only amplified it. Baylor senior Hayley Davis' missed par putt on the first extra hole of her deciding match with Stanford junior Mariah Stackhouse was all the more gut-wrenching because of the finality of the moment set up uniquely because of the new match-play format.
Stanford's 3-2 victory over Baylor in the championship match ended six grueling days of play in the warm Florida sun. You can add one new emotion then to the 2015 championship: exhaustion. If there was a valid criticism of the new schedule it was the sheer amount of golf played overall -- seven competition rounds in six days -- something both Stanford coach Anne Walker and Baylor coach Jay Goble noted in their post-round interviews.
Ultimately, though, women's college golf got not only what it had hoped for but what it deserved: An exciting finish, national TV exposure (with the Golf Channel broadcasting the championship for the first time), even a little controversy to spice things up (the grumbling about The Concession G.C. playing too long and having hole locations that were too severe muted somewhat by the amazing play down the stretch of Stackhouse and Davis with the national title in the balance).
Oh, and a new national champion.
For only the second time in the last 12 years, a program that had never won the NCAA title walked away the victors. While a perennial top-25 program under coaches Tim Baldwin and Caroline O'Conner, the Cardinal's previous best showing was a runner-up finish in 2000.
Coming off a Pac-12 title last spring and with two All-Americans in Stackhouse (above) and fellow junior Lauren Kim leading the charge, expectations were big in Palo Alto at the start of the 2014-'15 season. And yet the team struggled to find its way. Walker's squad won just one tournament during the regular season (its home even in October), enduring injuries to Kim as well as sophomore Quirine Eijkenboom, and seeing talented freshman Shannon Aubert (who won three matches this week) undergo surgery in February to remove an ovarian cyst. Walker, in her third year as head coach, had her own mid-season adjustments to make, giving birth to daughter Emma in December.
Yet despite entering the NCAA postseason with finishes of 10th, sixth and seventh in its final three starts, Stanford shinned, letting its NerdNation followers (led by former Stanford student Michelle Wie) rejoice.
For a sport that has grown so much in the last decade, with so many programs around the country investing time and resources to build national contenders, it's a good thing to have a little new blood step up to help maintain the sport's upward momentum.
Six years after the men started using match play to help crown the team winner, the women went kicking and screaming. And by and large found out what the men have: That match play simple creates a more exciting NCAA championship.
"I was the first one to be hesitant about it originally," said Goble moments after watching his squad painfully lost the championship. "I didn't originally believe that it was a format that was broken. But you know, again, going through the last two days, it's really exciting. It's really fun. It's an emotional roller coaster out there, but I think that to go out there and to fight it out the way you have to do in match play, it shows a lot of guts.
There will continue to be some dissenting voices who question whether the format change makes it less likely to identify the nation's top team. Had the format not been altered, traditional power USC would have won its four NCAA title in 12 years. But when the Trojans fell to Stanford in the semifinals, their title quest came to its own painful end.
Ultimately, just as college sports evolve so do their championships. Look no further than the most popular college sport in the country: football. Ohio State wouldn't have won its national championship this year under the format that sport traditionally used, yet the Buckeyes performance made them a legitimate national champion.
The same should be said for Stanford, deserving winners of the most exciting six-day endurance test women's college golf has ever seen.