East: Popson channels positivity, opens with 67
Team leader: Alabama (11-under 277)
Individual leader: Emma Lavy/Arkansas, Erica Popson/Tennessee, Emma Talley/Alabama (5-under 67)
In position: T-2. Tulane (283) T-2. Arkansas (283) 4. UCLA (288) 5. Texas (289) T-6. Oklahoma State (290) T-6. North Carolina (290) T-8. Northwestern (292) T-8. Notre Dame (292)
Chasing: 10. Tennessee (294) 11. East Tennessee State (297) T-12. Mississippi (299) T-12. Auburn (299)
Staying power: Erica Popson has worried about being a one-year wonder. That sophomore campaign was so impressive, despite the injured thumb, or perhaps because of it. And she hasn’t had a year anything like it since.
In fact, it has a been a lackluster final semester for Popson, who will turn professional immediately following the postseason. Her last four finishes: seventh, T-7, T-23, T-23.
When Popson first came to Tennessee, she thought a sports psychologist was for crazy people. She avoided the school’s shrink. When she was injured, however, Popson had trouble dealing with downtime and gave it a whirl.
Last semester, Popson met with Dr. Joe Whitney once a week. Before coming to Auburn, site of her 2011 SEC Championship victory, Popson and Whitney talked about trying to ride her momentum from here two years ago, a tall order for a player who felt zero momentum coming out of this year’s conference tournament.
“I think I’m trying to force it a little too much,” said Popson, who constantly tells herself to “just relax” while walking down fairways. “I think every week is probably way more important than it really is.”
Whether it was coming back to the scene of a past victory or the mental work or a combination of both, something clicked for Popson on Thursday. She opened with a 5-under 67, her first sub-70 round since September, to share the first-round lead at the East Regional.
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On a roll: Alabama’s team is less concerned about the pressure of advancing and more interested in seeing how many consecutive victories they can string together. The streak is at four and counting for the Tide, 2012 NCAA champs.
“I feel like the opportunities are there for us because we have really good ball-strikers on our team,” said head coach Mic Potter. “It’s just a matter of how we’re able to convert our opportunities, and they did a great job of that today.”
Alabama shot 11-under 277, its lowest round in NCAA tournament play, to lead Arkansas and Tulane by six.
Freshman Emma Talley led the way with a 5-under 67. Northern Ireland’s Stephanie Meadow, the SEC Player of the Year, fired a 68.
Talley’s round was highlighted by a chip-in eagle on the par-5 12th. Potter said Talley’s chipping has improved significantly in her first year of college golf.
“It feels good for her to know she can save her momentum if she misses a green,” said Potter.
Of course, eagles are good, too.
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Short shots: Tournament host Auburn, playing without head coach Kim Evans, who recently underwent surgery for ovarian cancer, shot 299 and is tied for 12th. Student assistant Danielle Downey, a former Auburn All-American and LPGA player, is at the helm this week. Downey has an orange cast on her left hand, the result of a stray blow with a hammer while marking the course. ... Tulsa’s Shu-Yin Liu, playing as an individual, shot 69 and is tied for seventh. The two lowest finishers not on an advancing team will move on to the NCAA Championship in Athens, Ga. ... Fifth-seeded Virginia got off to a slow start and stands in 14th.