__BRYAN, TEXAS--__Of course the NCAA team champion will be decided this week at The Traditions Club, but a lot more is on the line over the next four days. Specifically, the race for national-player-of-the-year honors is a tight one with conservatively seven players in the mix and as many as 14 with the potential to claim the title if things broke correctly.
The pack of leading candidates includes:
Megan McChrystal, LSU, Sr.
2 wins, 7 top-5s in 9 starts; 71.96 avg.
Stephanie Meadow, Alabama, Fr.
3 wins, 6 top-5s in 10 starts; 71.83 avg.
Sophia Popov, USC, Fr.
3 wins, 4 top-5s in 9 starts (only one finish worse than seventh); 71.85 avg.
Erica Popson, Tennessee, Soph.
4 wins, 5 top-5s in 9 starts; 72.07 avg.
Lizette Salas, USC, Sr.
4 top-5s in 9 starts; 71.59 avg.
Marta Silva Zamora, Georgia, Jr.
1 win, 5 top-5s in 10 starts; 71.48 avg.
Emily Tubert, Arkansas, Fr.
3 wins, 8 top-5s in 11 starts; 72.09 avg.
Should any of these half dozen players earn medalist honors this week, they'll also take the player-of-the-year award. But this isn't the only group of golfers than could claim PoY honors. If any of the following players win the individual title, they too will be able to make a claim as the top college golfer of the 2010-11 season.
Carlota Ciganda, Arizona State, Jr.
2 wins, 3 top-5s in 9 starts; 72.18 avg.
Lindy Duncan, Duke, Soph.
1 win, 5 top-5s in 10 starts; 72.67 avg.
Numa Gulyanamitta, Purdue, Sr.
2 wins, 3 top-5s in 11 starts; 72.59 avg.
And there's still another group of players that if they won this week might enter the mix, if things broke a particular way.
Amy Anderson, North Dakota State, Soph.
5 wins, 6 top-5s in 10 starts; 73.19 avg.
Pia Halbig, California, Sr.
1 win, 5 top-5s in 11 starts; 72.94 avg.
Brooke Pancake, Alabama, Jr.
1 win, 2 top-5s in 10 starts (worst finish: T-16); 72.13 avg.
Cheyenne Woods, Wake Forest, Jr.
1 win, 3 top-5s in 10 starts; 73.60 avg.
It will be interesting to see how The Traditions Club actually plays when the championship begins tomorrow morning. The Bryan/College Station area is part of a region in Texas that is among the most drought stricken in the country, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Texas A&M coach Trelle McCombs said that rains that fell last week was some of the first appreciation participation the area has had in the last three months. (Although more is forecasted to fall this week.)
Not surprisingly, then, the 6,260-yard, par-72 layout is playing firm and fast. And with winds expected to blow around 25 miles per hour each day, the likelihood of seeing lots of red numbers seems minimal.
(Note to those familar with The Traditions Club, the layout is switched from normal play on the course. The club's eighth hole is playing as the first hole, with the entire front nine shifted by two holes; 8 to 1, 9 to 2, 1 to 3, 2 to 4, etc. This allows the nine hole to play to the double green shared with the 18th hole, creating a more entertaining finish for golfers playing off either the first or 10th tees.)
Silva Zamora plays as an individual this week, with UGa coach Kelley Hester at her side, a status that likely allows the Spaniard to be focused on medalist; in 2007, Arkansas's Stacy Lewis won the NCAA title playing as an individual, with Hester (then the Razorback coach) walking all 72 holes with her.
Yet considering the conditions and the way they've been playing of late, it would seem that Meadow, Popson and McChrystal are the three golfers most likely to claim this week's title. Meadow, a native of Northern Ireland, knows a thing or two about playing in the wind. Popson shed any self-doubt about her own game with a recent run of three titles in her last four starts, losing a playoff in the other.
McChrystal, who shot an NCAA-record 64 in the final round at nationals last May, started the season in impressive style, winning the NCAA Preview at The Traditions Club with a final-round 65. It was the first of six straight top-five finishes for the senior, so when she finished T-58 at the Liz Murphey in March and a T-19 at SECs in April, it caught her by surprise. In the days leading up to NCAA Regionals, a tweak with the shafts in her clubs helped McChrystal return to form, as she claimed a share of the Central title.
"It was the weirdest thing because we watched her swing on video and nothing was different [from the fall]," said LSU women's coach Karen Bahnsen. "But she has gotten stronger over the year, and so we changed her shafts and it was like a light switch went on."
The good vibes on this course as well as success in big spots have me leaning toward McChrystal to take the individual title and carry off player of the year honors in the process.