WILMINGTON, N.C. – Two weeks ago at the NCAA Central Regional, Lizette Salas was asked to explain why her team fared so well in the postseason. “Well, Belen is back,” Salas answered without hesitation.
Belen Mozo, a spirited Spaniard who is the life of the party wherever she goes, has been a mainstay in the USC lineup during the past four years. Rotator-cuff surgery last summer, however, derailed her senior season. Mozo still isn’t 100 percent, but she’s far enough along in her comeback to give the Trojans a stout showing. Mozo shot 73-72 in the first two rounds at Country Club of Landfall to help USC take a seven-stroke lead midway through the NCAA Division I Women’s Championship.
“Pretty much both of the championships we’ve won, we were leading start to finish,” USC coach Andrea Gaston said. “When you get a little momentum going, there’s just something about it.”
Alabama briefly held the lead early Wednesday afternoon, but as the unpredictable coastal winds picked up, the Tide shifted in the wrong direction.
Alabama coach Mic Potter isn’t at all concerned that his team gets overlooked when it comes to title contenders.
“You’ve got to prove yourself first before you get mentioned,” said Potter, who led Furman to a sixth-place finish at Country Club of Landfall in 1995. “We’ve yet to do that.”
USC and Alabama shot even-par 288 in the second round. The Trojans are 6-under 570, with Alabama (577) second and Purdue (578) third.
Two lightning delays slowed afternoon play Wednesday. Arizona State’s Jennifer Johnson was on the ninth tee (her 18th) when the first horn blew. When play resumed, she missed her drive right and, after nipping a tree on her second shot, bogeyed her last hole to shoot 70 and finish at 7-under 137 and lead USC’s Jennifer Song (71) by a stroke. The two Jennifers met last year in the final match of the U.S. Women’s Amateur, with Song coming out on top.
Song, the overly mature sophomore who plans to turn professional after the Curtis Cup, leads USC with a 71.82 scoring average and a strong work ethic. But freshman Cyna Rodriguez has come up big so far for the Trojans, with rounds of 68-72.
“It’s like when I was young,” Mozo said of Rodriguez’s start. “I just played golf; nothing bothered me.”
Back when Mozo was “young,” she won the 2006 Women’s British Amateur and Girls’ British before coming to USC. Gaston said the young hotshot came in thinking “What more I can learn?”
Turns out, plenty.
Gaston said Mozo is a smarter player, particularly on and around the greens. The social Spaniard enjoyed the college atmosphere, dating the top player on the men’s tennis team and living a full life.
“It’s a protected environment,” Gaston said. “You can make your mistakes there, grow up and still have some independence. She really enjoyed it.”
In the past year, in particular, Mozo has learned to appreciate a healthy body.
“I just realized it is a temple,” Mozo said. “There’s nothing worse than being unable to play.”
Mozo’s injury was the result of a lower body that, while fit, was extra stiff. She overcompensated for it with more rotation in her left shoulder. It caused her “ligaments to stretch out and almost rip.”
After surgery, Mozo struggled with a sore lower back. Today, she’s pain-free, but concedes there’s still a long way to go.
“I was more worried about my mental game,” she said. “When you are out of competition for so long, you become very anxious, and I’m a very emotional player.”
Stubborn by nature, Mozo hesitated to take advice from her coaches. When she realized how much pressure she was putting on herself, she finally relented, telling herself Belen, you have to chill.
Mozo went home after her surgery last summer and was under “mandatory vacation.” No practicing allowed. For a player who typically fought the urge to go to the beach versus practice, Mozo found all she wanted to do was hit golf balls.
“That’s when I really knew I wanted to turn pro and live as a golfer,” she said.
Right now, Mozo’s biggest concern is controlling her emotions. She has been an instrumental part of the Trojans’ lineup for four years, and it’s difficult not to get caught up in the finality of this event.
“More than anything, we’re just trying to keep her in the moment,” Gaston said.