WILMINGTON, N.C. – By the time the final players walked off the 18th green Thursday at the Country Club of Landfall, the NCAA Championship had become an entirely different tournament. With barely enough sunlight to finish play, Purdue put the final touches on a monster rally that sent the Boilermakers to the top of the leaderboard, seven shots ahead of Southern California.
After 36 holes, USC was poised to run away with its third title in the past eight years. Fellow Pac-10 schools UCLA, Arizona State and Arizona – who have combined with the Trojans to win 13 of the last 20 national championships – lurked within 12 shots, and the only teams east of the Mississippi to sneak into the top 6 were Alabama and Purdue.
The Trojans began to struggle shortly into Round 3 as Purdue surged. USC’s Belen Mozo and Cyna Rodriguez took double bogeys at the par-3 second – where a flag set on the front-left corner lured many players into the water that surrounds the green on three sides – as Purdue counted two birdies and two pars. By the time the final group had made the turn, Purdue was 6 under to USC’s 6 over.
“They put their heart into it – we had to fight out there,” USC coach Andrea Gaston said. “I think where we finished is probably one of our worst days.”
The Trojans regrouped to play the back nine in just 1 over. Seven shots behind Purdue, USC is nowhere near out of the tournament.
Gaston was most pleased with the resolve her team showed, and despite giving up the top spot on the leaderboard, she knows there is something positive to take into the final round.
“This is the place you want to be in, rallying, trying to win a tournament,” she said.
Purdue used four sub-par rounds – and threw away a 73 – to climb to the top spot as it chases its first national title.
“To shoot 8 under is a heck of a score,” Boilermakers head coach Devon Brouse said.
A win would also make Purdue the first Big Ten team to bring home national hardware, and the first non Pac-10 school to win since 2007. Brouse, however, isn’t counting out the lineup of teams behind the Boilermakers.
One of those is Alabama, a team that started the day one shot ahead of Purdue in second place, but fell to third with a 6-over 294. Jennifer Kirby (70), Camilla Lennarth (71) and Brooke Pancake (72) led the Alabama charge, but Helena Blomberg and Rhea Nair both put up 81. As far as head coach Mic Potter is concerned, a good round Friday could put the Crimson Tide right back in the mix.
“We’re certainly not here trying to win this tournament; we’re trying to shoot as low as we can every round, but you only do that by staying in the present and committing to the shot at hand and then moving on to the next one,” Potter said.
Defending national champion Arizona State was also T-3, and got a serious boost from freshman Jennifer Johnson, who holds the individual lead at 9-under 207. Johnson put up a 2-under 70 in Round 3, after parring the two difficult par 3s – Nos. 2 and 16 – that the Sun Devils have struggled with so far this week.
Johnson, quick to note that any of her teammates could be the player leading Arizona State this week, got on a hot streak coming in, going 2 under in the final three holes for the outright lead.
“I just tried to swing aggressive coming down the final holes,” she said.
Oklahoma State’s Caroline Hedwall was alone in second at 208 after shooting 68 in Round 3, the lowest of the day.
“I was playing good the whole day. On my back nine I just started to hole a few putts and it felt good and kept on going,” she said. “The last few holes I didn’t hole any putts so it could have been way better but it’s OK, I’m satisfied with 68.”
An individual win for Hedwall, the top-ranked player in Golfweek’s rankings, would help secure Player of the Year honors. LeBlanc and USC’s Jennifer Song were T-3.
The top of the leaderboard is unusually void of West Coast teams, as Arizona and UCLA dropped to fifth and seventh, respectfully, in Round 3. UCLA was at 14-over 302 for the day after struggling on the par 3s. Arizona turned in a 5-over 293, but it wasn’t enough to move into contention. Heading into the final round, Duke had also dropped out of the picture, 33 shots behind Purdue.
The dynamic of the tournament might have changed considerably with a USC runaway out of the picture, but Brouse is nowhere near viewing the tournament as a lock.
“There are some good teams back there,” he said. “Nobody is going to hand it to us.”