WILMINGTON, N.C. – Wednesday night at dinner my colleague, Lance Ringler, declared he was bored. I agreed.
The NCAA Division I Women’s Championship, once again, lacked buzz. After three years of Duke dominance, the NCAAs turned into a Pac-10 Championship remix. No offense to the West Coast, but fans (and media) like upsets for a reason.
Purdue coach Devon Brouse engaged in a spirited conversation with Golfweek prior to the third round, listing the many reasons why match play worked so well last year at the men’s championship. (Brouse coaches both teams at Purdue.) He cautioned, however, that we should revisit this conversation after the final round. Perhaps Brouse sensed his Boilermaker squad was on the verge of something special.
Purdue produced one of its finest rounds of the season Thursday to take a seven-stroke lead going into the final day.
OK, I’m awake.
“We want to be in this position,” Brouse said. “We’ve got to embrace it.”
Purdue isn’t exactly a Butler this week, but Golfweek’s seventh-ranked team wasn’t one of the favorites either.
Canada’s Maude-Aimee LeBlanc, Purdue’s best player, was as surprised as anyone.
“I looked at the scoreboards a couple times and I saw Purdue on top,” she said. “I couldn’t believe it.”
A Big Ten school has never won the NCAA Championship. When that factoid sinks in, consider that SEC schools boast only one title (Georgia, 2001) in 20-plus years.
Friday’s final round should be interesting because for the first time in years, all the favorites might fall. Historic victories are always feel-good. Purdue finished a school-best second to Duke in 2007, but they were a staggering 15 shots behind.
Even if Purdue pulls off the upset Friday, the women might want to consider following the men’s lead (painful as that might sound to many of them). Brouse began lobbying for a match-play format for the men’s NCAA Championship more than 10 years ago.
“The whole reason that made sense was because the most exciting competition in golf is the Ryder Cup,” Brouse said. “If we can create that in college golf, why wouldn’t we?”
The atmosphere at the men’s NCAA Championship last spring was electric, by most accounts. A Cinderella team – Texas A&M – even took home the trophy thanks to one heroic shot.
All day long women’s coaches listed reasons why match play doesn’t work.
“We don’t play it all year long,” said Denver coach Sammie Chergo, noting the most common response.
True, but that can be fixed. Three match-play events a year ought to be plenty to prepare. Surely conferences can make sure there’s at least one regular-season match play event.
Stroke play is the stronger test. Again, this is true. But the men’s tournament includes 54 holes of stroke play, with the top eight teams advancing to match play. Best of both worlds.
LSU coach Karen Bahnsen isn’t convinced match play is the way to go. However, she did say her team loved the NGCA Match Play tournament, and not just because they happened to win last fall. The Tigers loved how it heightened the team atmosphere.
Not to state the obvious, but the NCAA Championship is a team event, and match play emphasizes every member of that team. No scores are thrown out. The point earned by the No. 1 player counts as much as the one up for the No. 5.
Brouse fields a completely international team. It will be interesting to see if more American juniors look at Purdue should they win this week.
Right now it’s easy for ASU, USC and UCLA to recruit the world’s best players. They flock to those schools to win national championships.
Match play might be the perfect way to help speed up the process of parity in women’s golf. If more teams win NCAA titles, the country’s most talented players might spread the wealth.
Friday’s round in Wilmington will be exciting because something out of the ordinary might happen. Brouse and Co. certainly have my attention.
But can they hold it?