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Confident Spartans off to record start

Sometimes the best thing in golf is an uneventful Sunday.

Michigan State carried an 11-stroke lead into the final round of the Tar Heel Invitational in Chapel Hill N.C., and much to coach Stacy Slobodnik-Stoll’s delight left with a 12-shot victory.

“Sunday could have been an interesting day,” she said, “and they made it not interesting.”

With the victory, Michigan State catapulted themselves up the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings into the No. 5 spot. The team’s previous high was a No. 14 ranking at the end of the 2000-01 season.

The Spartans’ three-day total of 4-under 860 also set the 54-hole school record.

Slobodnik-Stoll was impressed but not surprised. The team talked seriously about winning in their pre-tournament meeting, and she knows there is plenty of firepower in the lineup with all of last year’s starters having returned from last season.

“They’re making history, and that’s pretty exciting,” Slobodnik-Stoll said.

Each Michigan State player recorded at least one round under par at the Finley Golf Course, Slobodnik-Stoll pointing to a high percentage of greens in regulation as a key to their success. She expects all of her players to contribute regularly to the team score and said her squad is on track to reach all of its goals this season, which would culminate with a top-10 finish at the national championship.

Cross off that list the Spartans’ new status as a top-10 ranked team.

Senior Laura Kueny, who finished second at the Tar Heel at 4-under 212 (69-72-71), won’t deny there were some nerves that went along with leading an 18-team field by 11 shots going into the final round, but said the confidence from the first two days carried over.

“With a big lead like that, you don’t want to screw things up,” she said.

Now Keuny has the feeling there isn’t anyone the Spartans can’t play with, which is especially meaningful to a player in her final year of eligibility.

“We have so much talent on this team and with all the good playing that we’re doing and all the records, I think it’s just bringing more confidence in ourselves,” Keuny said.

Michigan State is gathering momentum for the NCAA Fall Preview, to be played Oct. 23-25. It’s the next tournament action the Spartans will see, and also the next time they’ll encounter Big Ten opponent Purdue, against which they have a 1-1 record so far this season. Both teams have two tournament wins this season.

In Slobodnik-Stoll’s mind, it’s not so much about the battle against a conference rival, but more about both teams establishing themselves as dominant in any field.

“You’re only as good as your next round,” Slobodnik-Stoll said. “We played great, we won the tournament but now our team is really looking forward to testing ourselves against the best teams in the country.”

Comeback kid: In the last year, Duke freshman Courtney Ellenbogen has been to the other side and back. That’s the far left side, as in the land of the pull-hook.

“There’s only one thing worse than playing golf with the fear of a hook, and that’s the fear of hooks and slices,” coach Dan Brooks said. “She sort of had that thing going, and it’s pretty hard to play aggressively when you have fear.”

Ellenbogen, who has played in three U.S. Women’s Amateurs, two U.S. Women’s Opens and has 18 top-10s in AJGA events to her credit since 2004, saw her game head south in the last year. She recorded no AJGA wins in 2009, and missed out on both the Women’s Open and Women’s Am.

Ellenbogen, of Blacksburg, Va., began struggling soon after she verbally committed to Duke as a result of both swing changes and bad play. Despite seeking help from multiple swing coaches, Ellenbogen, continued to struggle. (Because of NCAA rules, she couldn’t begin working with Brooks on her swing until she was a member of the team.)

“It felt like it was going to go left, and if I tried to keep it from going left it was usually a bad miss right,” Ellenbogen said. “It was kind of tough.”

In just her third tournament as a Blue Devil, Ellenbogen is back under par. Her score of 3-under 213 (70-73-70) at the Tar Heel Invitational earned her a fourth-place individual finish. In her previous tournament, the Mason Rudolph Intercollegiate, Ellenbogen finished at 7-over 151 (77-74).

In her mind, committing to Duke was key in getting her game back on track, and she’s enjoying the environment created by both Brooks and the rest of the team.

Brooks is also satisfied with how far Ellenbogen has come after working singlemindedly to fix some fundamental issues he pinpointed in her swing.

“We just went after them, and it takes a lot of patience to do that, especially when you’re just coming in as a freshman and you want to score,” he said.

Looks like Ellenbogen is back.

Five questions with Vanderbilt sophomore Marina Alex:

1. You played in the U.S. Women’s Open this past summer. What was the coolest thing about that event?

Probably the practice round. I got to play with Lorena Ochoa, and actually I played with her and Amanda Blumenherst.

2. I hear you love Mac and Cheese, please explain. What is your favorite type of Mac and Cheese?

I really like cheese and macaroni, so the fact that there is a dish that combines both of those things together, that’s kind of why it is my favorite. I really like Kraft Mac and Cheese.

3. What’s the big deal about not using a Titleist 3?

I like even numbers for golf balls, and then No. 1 is just a good karma number, you know? Three just kind of gets ruled out.

4. What’s your favorite short-game drill or game?

Probably 21. So if you’re playing an opponent, you each get two shots and the closest ball is two points and the second closest is one point. And you play to whoever gets to 21 first.

5. Vanderbilt men’s coach Tom Shaw is a pretty good player; Is your short game better?

It’s not, and that’s why I chip with him all the time is because he has an incredible short game. He shot 60 in a golf tournament this summer. He’s a good player. My short game is almost as good as his, but not quite.

A look ahead

What: Stanford Intercollegiate

When: Oct. 16-18

Where: Stanford (Calif.) Golf Course

Why it’s important: With one week until the NCAA Fall Preview, the top three teams in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings (USC, UCLA, Arizona State) are meeting in California. It’s the first tournament for USC since their win at the Mason Rudolph Intercollegiate Sept. 27. California, ranked No. 7 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings, could have some momentum coming of their win at the Edean Ihlanfeldt Invitational Oct. 7.

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