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Scenic Red Sky plays host to Conf. Challenge

WOLCOTT, Colo. – Between the miles of valley views, the elevation changes and a scattering of flaxen trees up and down the mountainsides, it’s easy to get distracted at Red Sky Golf Club. Players, beware: The fast, undulating greens will require a lot of attention this week at the Golfweek Conference Challenge.

Thanks to frequent top-dressing, the firm greens offer the greatest challenge on a course with an elevation change of nearly 600 feet from its highest to its lowest points.

“The main defense of the Fazio course is the greens and the green complexes, mostly because it’s not an especially long course, especially in this altitude,” head pro Chris Lai said.

Generally an 11 on the Stimpmeter, the greens will roll as fast as 13 because of the windy, dry conditions, Lai said. Despite being fast, the greens run true thanks to A-4 bentgrass, a strain that’s able to handle Colorado’s sometimes intense climate.

As for that scenery? Turns out the 18 teams converging at Red Sky this week for a conference battle royal that couldn’t have had better timing.

“The aspen trees are changing, and we’ve hit really close to peak – if not at peak – for the color change, so this is absolutely the best time to be here,” Lai said.

• • •

Since arriving in Wolcott on Friday, Pepperdine has been taking it nice and easy. Head coach Laurie Gibbs doesn’t want her girls to get ahead of themselves in the high altitude before attempting a title defense this week.

“We’ve been talking about it. We got in last night and went for a walk. We got up this morning and went for a walk before we got breakfast, so they’re feeling rested today,” Gibbs said. “They seem to be OK today.”

Pepperdine was 15th at the Preview but finished with a 1-over 289 in the final round, the team’s best score of the tournament. The Waves will will play this week without arguably their strongest player as sophomore Danielle Kang competes in the Women’s Japan Open. Kang earned an exemption into the event by winning the U.S. Women’s Amateur.

“It’s great experience for (Danielle); she’s really excited to go,” Gibbs said.

• • •

The fresh Colorado air – and a second consecutive start in a loaded field – could help Tennessee wipe the slate clean after a disappointing – and unexpected – last-place finish Sept. 15 at the NCAA Fall Preview.

No Lady Vol finished higher than T-42 at Traditions Club in Bryan, Texas. The team is expecting a rebound at Red Sky.

“We are going to the Golfweek Conference Challenge to win,” head coach Judi Pavon said. “We had a great 10 days at practice and worked on our weaknesses from last week, so we are prepared to give our best effort in Colorado.”

The Lady Vols will have a slight lineup change this week as sophomore Erica Popson, who finished last season with a T-18 at the NCAA Championship, officially opens her season this week. Popson missed qualifying to start the season after battling back from a wrist injury that plagued her freshmen year.

“Erica is crucial to our team’s success,” Pavon said. “She is a great player capable of winning tournaments, so to have her back in the lineup should be a big help to us.”

• • •

Two teams arrived in Wolcott this week with something of a bitter taste in their mouths. Harvard and Minnesota narrowly missed out on postseason play at the end of last season, but are looking to get the point across early that they can be contenders this season.

In Harvard’s case, head coach Kevin Rhoads says the Ivy League golf powerhouse is returning a team that’s significantly different from the Crimson team that recorded four wins in the 2009-10 season. Harvard swapped two influential seniors for two strong freshmen – including Bonnie Hu, a Golfweek preseason player to watch and Harvard’s No. 1 player this week.

“I know that (the freshmen) will more than pull their weight, but when you have that leadership from the top and setting a certain tone, we’re still trying to figure out what our identity is for this year,” Rhoads said.

Last season’s near-miss was a topic of conversation and reflection for his returning players, Rhoads said, but he added that most didn’t spend the summer avenging it – and that was perfectly OK with him. Instead, his players focused their energy on completing prestigious internships. Two players spent the summer in China, one in Japan and another immersed herself in political consulting and strategy in Boston.

“It’s something that we try to balance every year, and it’s always a challenge every year,” Rhoads said. “And it’s correct for them to focus on those other things through their summertime, but it puts them at a disadvantage when they come back to school every year.”

Minnesota also seeks redemption, but senior leader Teresa Puga is optimistic about the season. After finishing seventh of 18 teams two weeks ago at the Cougar Classic, Puga said the Gophers realized that they are capable of making postseason this year.

“We were definitely disappointed,” said Puga, who qualified for regionals as an individual despite the team miss. “We realized that we were so close. If we had done a little better, we would have been in.”

• • •

Collette Murray doesn’t take a full lineup for granted. The Chattanooga coach knows what it’s like to play a tournament with four girls after finishing last season with a short squad, but luckily this season it’s not something she needs to worry about.

The Mocs return three players from last year’s Southern Conference championship team – Emma de Groot, Christine Wolf and Maria Juliana Loza – and also added freshmen Yushira Budhram and Jordan Britt.

“We don’t have any depth, but we should still be good,” Murray said. “They’re all good players.”

Chattanooga will be looking to secure another high finish at the Golfweek Conference Challenge after finishing third at last year’s inaugural event, just two shots out of first. Wolf played the hero for the Mocs last year after draining a 25-foot putt on the final green to put Chattanooga in third, one shot ahead of Ohio State. Wolf finished T-3 individually.

– Information from Tennessee athletics used in this report.

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