Few things can divert the attention from a 29-shot team victory, but Marika and Isabelle Lendl’s fight to the finish at the Central District Invitational is one of them. The Lendls put a sister act on the rest of the field Feb. 23, and were a combined 5 under over the final five holes to create what head coach Jan Dowling calls one of the most exciting races for an individual title she’s seen in college golf.
Marika, a sophomore, had entered the final round one shot behind Isabelle, a freshman. After making birdie at the 18th at River Wilderness Club in Parrish, Fla., for a final-round 2-under 70, Marika stood at 4-under 212, four shots clear of every player in the field but her sister. That meant her first college victory hung on whether Isabelle could make up two shots on the final hole.
Walking up the 18th fairway, Isabelle mistakenly thought she needed only a birdie to tie Marika – she had missed her sister’s finish while helping a playing partner find a ball in the woods. She stepped up to her second shot at the par-4 18th, 163 yards from the green, uphill and dead into the wind, but with a good angle. And, as Isabelle noted, “this wasn’t really the time to play safe.”
“She hits this 5-iron that just never leaves the flag,” Dowling explained. “It bounces 10 feet short of the flag and it goes in the hole for eagle.”
The girls’ father, Ivan, turned to Marika, announcing the tie. Marika then turned to Dowling, wondering if the tournament would go to a sudden death playoff (it would not).
Isabelle, meanwhile, thought she had the tournament in her pocket.
“I said, ‘You had to steal my thunder, didn’t you?’ ” Marika said of her response to Isabelle’s eleventh-hour eagle. “I was happy for her, that was a cool way to finish the tournament.”
Both sisters spent the final round aware that they were close to each other and a victory, but after all was said and done, neither was too concerned that her sister stood in the way of claiming a solo tournament title.
The ending only seemed fitting.
“It was cool to watch their composure and handling themselves under the pressure and under the gun,” Dowling said. “They both wanted to win so badly.”
Isabelle won the scorecard playoff after the round, but the record books will show that both sisters fought their way to 4 under for the tournament and helped the Gators trounce the rest of the field.
While the grand finale at the 18th was good talk for the team following the round, it didn’t take anything away from the Gators’ team performance.
“It’s awesome to win as a team and winning as an individual is just a bonus,” Isabelle said. “… It just shows what our team is capable of.”
The Gators are ranked No. 17 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings after starting the spring season with a ninth-place finish at the Northrup Grumman two weeks ago. In Dowling’s mind, the final round of that tournament set the stage for the overwhelming Central District victory. The Gators had a post-tournament conversation about their beliefs and their potential on the golf course, and returned Florida believing that they would win this tournament.
The Central District is the first victory of the 2009-10 season for the Gators, but there have been other close calls. Florida started the fall season by winning the stroke play qualifier at the NGCA Match Play tournament, finishing fourth after match play. The Gators ended the fall with a near miss at the Las Vegas Collegiate Showdown, finishing five shots behind Arizona to take second place. In her first year at the helm, Dowling has led Florida’s 15-spot climb up the Golfweek/Sagarin rankings since last spring.
“We had everyone playing well at the same time, which hadn’t happened for this team for quite awhile,” Dowling said of the win. “Once the ball got rolling, we just never really stopped.”
The question is how long can Florida keep that ball rolling?
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THE RACE IS ON: Caroline Hedwall claimed her second individual title of the spring at the Arizona Wildcat Invitational Feb. 23, adding a fourth career title to her resume. After a dominant five-shot win in a field that included six of the top 10 teams ranked by Golfweek, it seems the player of the year race could be shifting in her direction.
Top-ranked Jennifer Song of Southern California, was also at the tournament, but came in T-41 after a final-round 80 that included three double bogeys. Song won the Mason Rudolph last fall, and came close to another victory at the Northrop Grumman two weeks ago.
Auburn junior Cydney Clanton could also be in the mix for the post-season honor. Clanton never finished outside the top 5 individually in the fall, and claimed a big win at the NCAA Fall Preview in addition to taking medalist honors during stroke play qualifying for the NGCA Match Play Championship. Vanderbilt sophomore Marina Alex and Purdue junior Maude-Aimee LeBlanc – who won twice in the fall – round out the top 5 players in Golfweek’s rankings.
With a lot of golf left to be played this spring, the race could get interesting.
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FIVE QUESTIONS WITH… Miami freshman Shelby Gilbert, who led the Hurricanes to a victory at the Kiawah Island Intercollegiate with her T-9 finish:
1. You had your career best round, 2-under 70, in the final round at Kiawah Island. What was working for you that day?
I’m just really hitting my driver good and I’m hitting really solid iron shots and all day long I was putting really well, all my putts were right by the hole. Finally on my last two holes I made two good birdies and that’s what really helped me accomplish my round.
2. How did it feel to lead your team to a win as a freshman?
It was really great. I love my team and it was really great being such a big part of our second win at that tournament in a row because we were in seventh place going into that day. It was really great coming back and winning it.
3. Your dad (Gibby Gilbert III, Nationwide Tour) and grandfather (Gibby Gilbert II, PGA and Champions Tours) have both played professional golf, so how did that affect your decision to pick up the game?
My parents and my grandfather, they never really pushed me into golfing or anything so I didn’t really start playing until I was 13. It was kind of my own decision to play, but it helps me a lot, I progress a lot quicker than everyone else because of them. It’s really fun coming from a golfing family and playing golf and being able to talk about it with them and they actually know what you mean.
4. You have great focus on the course. What’s your secret?
I really don’t have a secret. I guess I just try to stay relaxed out there. I don’t get too upset, if something goes wrong I definitely think I can come back for it and I try to do the best I can on every shot and I try to stay within that shot, I don’t try to get ahead of myself or anything like that.
5. You’re from Tennessee, what is the most different thing about living in Miami?
Probably the wind and everything. In Tennessee, obviously we have a lot of hills and mountains and the courses are different in that way and then also they’re different because we don’t have the 20-30 mph winds like they do down here and I think that it’s helped me a lot as a player to get better. It definitely helps me a lot going up to Kiawah where it is very windy, it gives me an advantage over the other players.
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A LOOK AHEAD…
What: Bruin Wave Invitational
When: March 1-3
Where: Robinson Ranch (Valley Course), Santa Clarita, Calif.
Why it’s important: The inaugural Bruin Wave Invitational features a field of 18 teams, including last week’s Arizona Wildcat Invitational winner Arizona State and Northrop Grumman winner USC. Pepperdine could be tough (especially since they’re close to home) after starting the season with second- and sixth-place finishes in their first two tournaments. Also keep an eye on UCLA, Golfweek’s second-ranked team, and Stanford, who started the season with a win at the Peg Barnard Invitational.
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What: Kinderlou Forest Challenge
When: March 1-2
Where: Kinderlou Forest Golf Club, Valdosta, Ga.
Why it’s important: This tournament will offer Florida a good test after their Central District blowout. They’ll have to compete with four teams ranked in Golfweek’s top 20 including Tennessee (6), Virginia (12), Vanderbilt (16) and LSU (18). Florida State, who collected a win and two second-place finishes in the fall, will also make its debut with new interim head coach Kate Golden, who could be just the boost the Seminoles need to get back into fall fighting form.