As she tended to pre-tournament duties Thursday at the Liz Murphey Collegiate in Athens, Ga., Auburn coach Kim Evans revealed her single-minded approach to the end of the season. She has devoted little thought to how the year could end, even with conference and regional showdowns just around the corner. Evans only has Georgia on her mind.
If the last month is any indication, however, Evans’ strategy is working, as the Tigers have proved to be a major player in the national title race.
“In a weird way, I’m not looking at any other teams,” she said. “… In college golf and how much it’s grown and how many great players are out here, I think any team at any time can step up.”
With Cydney Clanton and Candace Schepperle leading the charge, Auburn has taken the biggest steps so far this spring. The Tigers picked up two wins in the last month, and have climbed to the No. 3 spot in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings, putting them amid the traditional Big 3 of women’s college golf: Arizona State (No. 1), UCLA (2) and USC (5).
“We’ve got a really talented team that’s really enjoying each other,” Evans said. “I do look at this team as one that can have great success this year.”
Auburn is just one of a handful of schools outside of the perennial national championship contenders that shouldn’t be overlooked in coming months. Florida, ranked No. 10 by Golfweek, recorded a 29-stroke win at the Central District Invitational to open the spring, and Pepperdine started the fall with two wins, narrowly missing another at the Northrop Grumman in February. After capturing its first win in more than six years in October at the Las Vegas Collegiate Showdown, Arizona has turned in two more top 5s and is currently No. 8.
USC head coach Andrea Gaston recogizes the level of talent of other teams around the country, and says it’s a good reminder for her players to work hard and concentrate only on the things they can control.
“I think we’ve got a lot of great teams out there with players that can step up,” she said.
The Trojans have collected three team titles this year, including one at the Bruin/Wave Invitational March 3. The team also knows how to bounce back from a not-so-high finish after placing 16th at the Preview (when Jennifer Song was in Korea at the LPGA Hana Bank Kolon Championship) and 12th at the Wildcat Invitational in tough playing conditions. Gaston said those are the types of experiences that have made her team stronger.
“I think the good side of that is we don’t take our wins for granted,” she said. “You get something like that and it reminds you that you really are only as good as your last tournament.”
It comes as no surprise that talk of the postseason includes the Big 3. Duke – especially after a come-from-behind-win at the Fall Preview – also has returned to the conversation. It’s been three years since head coach Dan Brooks led the Blue Devils to the last of three consecutive national titles, and just one player remains on the team with a connection to that era: Alison Whitaker.
“She’s a very good leader and I think she’s done a good job of making sure people keep it in perspective and enjoy the process and not get too hung up on whether it happens or not,” Brooks said. “We’re just going to keep on working and doing the step by step process and getting better.”
Whitaker has been hot lately, finishing T-21 at the Australia Women’s Open earlier this month, and T-2 at the Wildcat Invitational Feb. 23. Three freshmen have seen considerable action this season already – Lindy Duncan, Courtney Ellenbogen and Stacey Kim – and Brooks said he doesn’t see a lack of experience being a factor.
“I think we need to make a decision on how badly we want it,” he said. “They’ve been working hard but it takes a lot of dedication and hard work on your short game to win a national championship.”
Don’t have to tell that to the defending national champions. Perched atop Golfweek’s rankings, Arizona State is about to come out of a short hibernation period for the final segment of their season. The Sun Devils host their home tournament April 9-11 before rolling into the Pac-10 Championship a week later.
Head coach Melissa Luellen truly believes her teams knows how to prepare for the postseason. She also knows every player is capable of shooting in the mid-60s. Add to those factors the team’s good vibes on the grounds at Landfall Tradition (where the Sun Devils finished fourth at the Fall Preview), and Arizona State looks as tough as ever.
“If you get yourself in a wrong spot, you have a hard time making pars, but you can also get it going, too,” Luellen said of this year’s tough championship venue. “It demands respect.”
So, too, do all the teams in the running for a title there.
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PLAYING WITHOUT PARK: Oklahoma State freshman Victoria Park is making her first LPGA start at the Kia Classic after receiving a sponsor exemption. Park, from Irvine, Calif., is playing close to home as the tournament is in nearby Carlsbad, Calif. She opened Thursday with a 3-over 75 and was T-77.
The exemption meant Park had to miss last week’s BYU Entrada Classic, where the Cowgirls only had four players available to compete. The young team, ranked No. 24 by Golfweek, finished 11th.
“Although we didn’t finish well I think we learned a lot about ourselves this week,” head coach Annie Young said in an e-mail. “I saw a lot of promising play and we are looking forward to our next event at ASU.”
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FIVE QUESTIONS WITH . . . Taylor Fowler, a California-Fullerton freshman who finished T-9 with teammate Deidre Crabtree at the CSUB Spring Invitational March 23 to lead the Titans to a fourth-place finish. Fowler is the younger sister of PGA Tour rookie Rickie Fowler.
1. You didn’t take up golf until you were a junior in high school. What got you interested in the sport?
At the time my best friend wanted me to come out for the golf team because they needed some more girl players on the high school team so she got me out on the green over the summer and I went out for try-outs and made the team.
2. Your game has improved since the fall. What do you attribute that to?
I’m hitting my shots a lot straighter now and my short game has improved so I’m able to save myself with up and downs. It’s not as nerve-wracking as going in as a freshman, first time. I kind of know what to expect, how to warm up and be prepared.
3. How often do you get to play with Rickie, and how often do you get to see him compete on Tour?
When my brother comes home – it isn’t that often anymore – we try to play once. I went to watch my brother in Florida at the Honda. He didn’t make the cut so we went out and played golf one day and he works with my game, and kind of course management, when we go play together. When he’s home, we … try to get out once and he always helps me.
4. Is the LPGA tour a goal of yours? Has watching Rickie affected that decision?
It’s definitely a goal in my mind. Not 100 percent I want to do the LPGA tour, but if I improve in the next couple of years tremendously then I will look into it, but seeing Rickie on Tour has made it look kind of awesome. … It’s a hard life, though. But it would be fun and I wouldn’t mind making it a goal of mine in a year if I improve more.
5. How would you describe your style on the course – do you also like to wear bright colors?
Rickie has a lot more style than me. The bright color thing is not necessarily what I tend to wear. I usually just try to match … and go play golf. I don’t worry about my style as much as Rickie does.
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A LOOK AHEAD…
What: Liz Murphy Collegiate Classic
When: March 26-28
Where: University of Georgia Golf Course, Athens, Ga.
Why it’s important: Georgia sure knows how to throw a party, considering 22 teams – including 14 in Golfweek’s top 30 – will converge there this weekend for a mid-spring showdown. Auburn, at No. 3, is the highest-ranked team in the field, and is coming off a big win at the Tiger/Wave Classic. Alabama (No. 7) and Florida (No. 10) are also teams to watch, as both have collected 10-shot plus victories already this season. Duke, No. 6, will arrive in Athens after being out of action since finishing fifth at the Wildcat Invitational a month ago.