Defending champ Purdue starting to peak

Purdue's Laura Gonzalez at the 2010 NCAA Championship

Purdue's Laura Gonzalez at the 2010 NCAA Championship

Women's Rankings »

RankNameSchoolRating
1Alison LeeUCLA  69.59 
2Annie ParkUSC  69.73 
3Yu LiuDuke  69.81 
4Stephanie MeadowAlabama  70.00 
5Gaby LopezArkansas  70.01 

Women's Team Rankings »

RankNameRatingEvents
1Southern California 70.32 
2UCLA 70.60 
3Duke 70.79 
4Stanford 71.49  10 
5Arkansas 71.52 

Before this week, not much noise had come out of the gals at the Birck Boilermaker complex. With an NCAA Championship trophy on the shelf this season, the five players who pieced together an unlikely victory at Landfall Country Club have put together an entirely respectable season – they’re No. 7 in Golfweek’s rankings, after all – that used to be lacking in fireworks.

Then they headed west to San Diego.

Purdue earned its fourth and most impressive win of the season March 22 at the Battle at Rancho Bernardo. The Boilermakers finished atop a 17-team field against such West Coast giants as USC, UCLA, Arizona State, Arizona and California. As cold rain forced frequent stoppages of play, the Boilermakers finished at 15-over 879, seven shots ahead of top-ranked USC.

“I think the tough weather definitely impacted the scores, (but) our team seemed to handle it better than the others,” Purdue head coach Devon Brouse said.

Brouse won’t describe the win in San Diego as outstanding, but admits it was both a step in the right direction and a statement-maker. Anytime a team can knock off programs like USC and UCLA in their backyard, it’s reason to take notice. It also proves the growing depth of women’s college golf.

“We know there’s a lot of great teams in college golf and any given week, six, eight, 10 teams could win a national championship,” Brouse said.

Speaking of depth, it’s a word that relates specifically to the Purdue roster. The Boilermakers can dig deeper than they’ve been able to in years past, and after adding freshman Alex Stewart to the lineup this season, intra-team competition has only improved. At Rancho Bernardo, four Purdue players finished inside the top 15, including senior Thea Hoffmeister, who played as an individual. Hoffmeister was a crucial component in last year’s national championship team.

Even with a roster full of talent, Brouse said his players struggled to find their form in the fall, resulting in a slower start than other top-10 teams. While Alabama and LSU shot out of the gate at the season-opening Fall Preview, Purdue found its legs a couple of weeks later. Victories at the Windy City Collegiate and the Lady Northern Invitational made the fall “solid,” in Brouse’s words. The Mason Rudolph sticks out as one of the fall’s best performances, and a title was within Purdue’s grasp there until LSU overtook the Boilermakers at the wire. Six months later, a final-round 13-under 275 at the Administaff Lady Jaguar set the stage for victory at Rancho Bernardo.

Brouse hopes that momentum can carry the Boilermakers into postseason, where Purdue has more than one title to defend.

“We’re trying to build toward the postseason and that’s our Big Ten Championship, regionals and then on to nationals,” he said. “I think it is an ongoing process of trying to put your best foot forward.”

• • •

Anything you can do... Big changes are brewing for the Liz Murphey Collegiate, to be played at the University of Georgia Golf Course in Athens, Ga., April 1-3. Inspired by a playing format that showed up on the men’s circuit years ago, Georgia head coach Kelly Hester decided to try the change on the women.

The five players representing each team at the Liz Murphey will play in the same group this year, with the lowest four scores on each hole counting toward the team score. Coaches will accompany their teams around the course, acting as live scorers and calling in scores to the clubhouse every three holes. For the purpose of season-ending statistics, scores will be calculated in the traditional way (play five, count the lowest four individual scores for the team).

“I can’t really take the credit for the concept, the men have done it for quite a while,” Hester said.

Hester said she briefly considered altering the event to a match-play format, but decided against it since most major championships in women’s golf are stroke play. She acknowledged that players will need to keep an eye on pace of play since they’ll be in fivesomes, and every player will need to be diligent about playing out every hole.

Weighing in with a 23-team field, the Liz Murphey is one of the more massive events in women’s college golf. So far, Hester said she’s gotten positive feedback from the coaches of the teams in the field. She’ll re-solicit their unabashed opinions at the conclusion of the event before deciding if it’s a format change that should stay. The field includes top-20 programs like Alabama, LSU, Duke, Virginia, Arkansas, Wake Forest, North Carolina and Oklahoma.

“I just think it’s easy for us to get stale; we do the same thing every week,” Hester said. “It’s really not that much different than what we do.”

• • •

A look ahead...

What: Bryan National Collegiate

When: Bryan Park Champions Course

Where: Browns Summit, N.C.

Why it’s important: This would be an excellent week for No. 6 Duke to make a statement in a so-far winless season. Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina are other teams that spent the season on the cusp of greatness, and could really use a last-minute boost before conference play.

• • •

photo

Lizette Salas

Five questions with USC senior Lizette Salas, who earned a share of runner-up honors at the Battle at Rancho Bernardo:

1.) Rancho Bernardo had some pretty horrible weather; do you think you’re a foul-weather player? What’s your best tip for playing in bad weather?

The past year, I did not play well in miserable weather. I shot 83 at Pac-10s when the weather was really bad, so I can do both. It’s something that I have developed over a period of time, mental things rather than physical things because everyone has to go through the same things. I developed a habit to playing difficult shots and putting myself in difficult situations where I could be in and not panic. I’ve been trying to work on that, it’s been working. I’ve been working a lot with Coach. ... I think this type of weather prepares us for what’s going to be in Texas (site of the NCAA Championship) because I’ve heard it can be windy and you can have those weird weather situations.

2.) The USC roster has a lot different look this season after losing Jennifer Song and Belen Mozo, and gaining transfer Lisa McCloskey and freshmen Sophia Popov and Rachel Morris. What’s your take on this year’s team?

I knew before school started that it was going to be a different team, a very young team. Even though Lisa is a junior, she’s only 19. I’m the oldest and I’m 21. Different personalities, and it’s just a lot more different than years before. I don’t think it’s a bad thing, it’s a very good thing, but for me as a captain it’s quite challenging and also fun to deal with girls from different aspects, different cultures. Talent-wise, I think we have all the talent we can possibly have. It’s just difficult now because each girl is coming up at different times so we all have to figure out how to play as a team and just come together at the right time.

3.) Does it feel different to go through the season as the top-ranked team, or is it even something you think about?

I think it is exciting, especially for the girls coming in to have them feel like, ‘Wow, I’m on the No. 1 team in the country,’ that’s really cool but at the same time you have to think back and say, ‘OK, what got us to be No. 1?’ Now we have to work twice as hard as we did last semester because everyone now is looking at us and now we’re the target so it’s good. In a way it’s bad but I try not to think about it and I try to tell the girls not to think about it so much. ... I try to tell the girls I’ve been there, I’ve won a national championship as a team, just try to give them insight into what it really takes to go to nationals, contend and actually win a national championship.

4.) You’re one of the most dominant seniors in women’s college golf. What do you think about many of your classmates leaving early to turn pro?

It wasn’t even a question for me to stay four years. My goal was to graduate from USC, and I made a promise to my family. I was not going to leave USC without a degree, so it was definitely a personal decision for me. I think it’s nice to see girls staying all four years to get their degrees and be a true student athlete. Like I said, it’s a personal decision, but I give those girls that left early props and I wish them good luck. I just wanted the full college experience and I’m so glad I’m about to graduate. It’s something I’ll remember for the rest of my life, and I’m hoping the rest of my team graduates as well, which is why Coach picked up, she wants us to graduate in addition to competing at the highest level of golf.

5.) What are your plans after graduation?

My amateur days are over. I am planning to turn pro right after the U.S. Open qualifier, which is at Industry Hills, and my first Futures Tour is going to be in Ohio in June. So I’m really looking forward to that and just playing as much golf as I can and not really worrying about money and all that stuff that comes along with the professional life. I just want to have fun and make a name for myself and for my family and make USC proud and I want to finish as a four-time All-American (at USC).

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