On a steamy Texas afternoon during the final round of the NCAA Central Regional, Duke and Southern California had their final players standing on the 18th tee box at the demanding Traditions Club. The first four players for both squads were surrounding the 18th green, awaiting the outcome. Through 53 holes, USC led by a shot over the top-ranked Blue Devils.
With the tournament on the line, it wouldn’t have been a surprise to see Duke freshman Amanda Blumenherst make birdie to put pressure on her playing partner. Instead, it was USC senior Irene Cho who followed a long, straight drive with a laser approach to 18 inches and converted the birdie to give the Trojans a two-shot victory.
Something similar happened in the NCAA West Regional at Washington National just outside Seattle. Second-ranked UCLA took the first-round lead and looked to be in control. But the Bruins relinquished the lead to an underrated Purdue team that walked away with a convincing victory.
If Duke and UCLA are beatable this late in the season, then the NCAA Division I Women’s Championship is up for grabs. When the finals begin May 23 at Ohio State’s Scarlet Course, there could be as many as nine teams that have a legitimate shot, and another seven that could easily spend some time inside the top 5.
Aside from Duke and UCLA, there are seven teams talented enough to walk away victorious: USC, Purdue, Tennessee (which won the East Regional), Pepperdine, Auburn, Arizona State and Georgia. And it wouldn’t be shocking to see Florida, Oklahoma State, Texas A&M, California, Wake Forest, UNLV or Arkansas also creep into the mix sometime during the four days in the Midwest.
“Anybody can win and that’s the lesson we need to take from this week,” UCLA coach Carrie Forsyth said following the Bruins’ second-place finish. “You better come ready to play your best golf because, if you don’t, you will not win. Your whole season does not mean anything when you go to NCAAs.”
Purdue coach Devon Brouse agreed that the list of title contenders is a lengthy one.
“Obviously, Duke being the top-ranked team, everyone is going to be looking at them and they should – they are an outstanding golf team. But you can name a list of schools that should be in the hunt this year,” he said.
It’s not unusual for a few sleepers to qualify and take positions away from teams that played well throughout the season. Only 42nd-ranked Nebraska can call itself a true Cinderella this year. Aside from the Huskers, the numbers suggest that this could be one of the most competitive championships since the regional format began in 1993.
Eighteen of the top 20 teams in the Golfweek/ Sagarin College Rankings are in the field, and only three teams ranked outside the top 30 will compete. (Only the absences of No. 14 Vanderbilt and No. 18 Virginia kept it from being a top-20 sweep. Tournament host Ohio State, ranked 22nd, also failed to qualify.)
“Some years we’re just happy to get through (regionals),” said Tennessee coach Judy Pavon. “But I think this year more than any year we’ll work really hard and try to go in and win. That’s our ultimate goal, to leave there with a trophy.”
The individual race could be as hotly contested as the team race, with only one top-20 player
not in the field – No. 11 Jacqui Concolino, a Vanderbilt freshman. After Concolino, the highest-ranked player not in action is Washington State senior Anastasia Kostina, who is No. 29.
There will be the usual suspects: Blumenherst, Cho, Auburn’s Maria Martinez, Texas A&M’s Ashley Knoll and Washington’s Paige Mackenzie, who are ranked Nos. 1-5. But UCLA freshmen Jane Park and Tiffany Joh, Duke veterans Liz Janangelo and Anna Grzebien, and freshmen Taylor Leon (Georgia), Azahara Munoz (Arizona State) and Da Sol Chung (UNLV) each could make an impact.
At the top of the list of red-hot players is Tennessee sophomore Marci Turner, a lefty who surprised even herself by winning three times this season, including the East Regional, which she says was her best ball-striking performance ever.
“I’m going to take away a lot of confidence,” Turner said of her latest victory. “This a tough golf course, and if I can play good out here and have a good ball-striking week, I can do it anywhere.”
That’s the philosophy that regional champions Purdue, USC and Tennessee will take
into the NCAA Championship. If the Boilermakers can defeat UCLA, the Trojans can clip Duke and the Vols can outlast Arizona State and Auburn, realistically there should be no overwhelming favorite for the first time in more than a decade.
“It’s an interesting year,” Forsyth said. “It seems teams have had flashes of brilliance at some point in their season and it’s going to be about who actually does it when it really counts.”
– Beth Ann Baldry and Lance Ringler contributed