PAWLEYS ISLAND, S.C. – The finish was sweet in its ingenuity. Tuesday at the Golfweek Program Challenge, there were varying levels of success: Tomasz Anderson, a lanky Englishman from Jacksonville State, won in his college debut; Julia Strandberg, a dogged senior, helped guide East Carolina to still another women’s title; Christina Miller, a South Florida transfer with tons of firepower, won her first title and validated her decision to move back home; and tiny Campbell, with four freshmen, produced a remarkable performance that ended with an unorthodox sweep of the men’s and program titles.
Yes, Campbell and East Carolina tied, rather improbably, for the Program Challenge crown, each school shooting a cumulative, 54-hole score of 1,716. So, rather than name co-champions, and with less than a 5-hour bus ride back to campus, each school selected a male and female to play off for the title at Caledonia Golf & Fish Club. More intriguing: It would be sudden-death alternate shot.
East Carolina showed no hesitation in choosing its participants: Strandberg and senior lefty David Watkins, the school’s two low scorers at the event. Campbell, meanwhile, required more thought. Freshman Andrew Gai was the logical choice, having finished second in his first event. But he deferred to the two senior captains, Vaita Guillaume and Mitch Gray. The dispute was resolved the old-fashioned way – with a coin flip near the scoreboard – but it nonetheless proved to be the right choice. On the playoff hole, the team of Gray and Michelle Koh (T-6) went fairway-green-2-putt for par and the win; Strandberg-Watkins found the left rough, then the water in front, then the right rough.
Said Gray: “That was one of the craziest things I’ve ever done in college golf.”
But, undoubtedly, it was a fitting conclusion for a week that illustrated not only the level of exquisite shotmaking among collegians, but also the great parity in NCAA Division I golf.
Start with the individual men’s champion, Jacksonville State’s Anderson, who won for the second time this season but first in the States. Earlier this summer, the freshman from Herfordshire, England, won the Under-21 County Championship back home, then shot 15-under 201 (66-68-69) here to top Campbell’s Gai by two strokes.
“I know what I’m capable of,” Anderson said, “but I just wanted to prove it. I was just waiting for the week that clicks, and it did this week. I needed to let myself go.”
Similar advice also helped score Miller her first career title. The sophomore spent last season at Ole Miss but grew weary of the frequent flights back home to Bradenton, Fla., to visit her family and swing coaches. Frustrated with her game, Miller didn’t play a tournament this summer. Instead, she held down a real job – as a member of the cart staff at River Strand Country Club in her hometown – and practiced and played when convenient.
“I couldn’t be happier with the decision,” she said.
Standing near the clubhouse at Caledonia, East Carolina women’s coach Kevin Williams barely could contain himself, too. Strandberg, his gritty senior, had just posted her best career finish (solo third), but that told only part of the story. For two years, she had fought a nagging back injury and failed to crack the starting five. Finally, with a chance to make an impact, Strandberg held the opening-round lead after a career-low 68, hung near the top of the leaderboard and finished seven back of Miller. It was only Strandberg’s third career start.
“It’s unbelievable,” said Williams, whose Pirates now have won at least once in the past 12 seasons. “I can’t even begin to describe how amazing it feels to pull for someone so hard for three years and see it finally pay off.”
Though Campbell lacked the feel-good story, its week near Myrtle Beach was the most bountiful. In his first college event, in his first college round, Gai shot 64 in the opening round at True Blue Golf Course. A day later, Lisbeth Brooks shot 67 to vault into contention on the women’s side. Said Campbell head coach John Crooks: “To win something like this, you have to go low.”
Never was that more true than at True Blue, which hosted the men’s championship that turned into a high-powered shootout. Jacksonville State and South Florida shot 24-under 840 – and lost. Andres Schonbaum aced the par-3 14th, helping move JSU to within a shot of the lead, but that rally fell short. North Carolina-Wilmington was 16 under on the day midway through the back nine, just two behind, but that rally fell short. Nearly half of the field – 29 of 60 players – finished three rounds under par, a staggering number despite the generally defenseless course, with its light winds, wide fairways and, at least by today’s standards, relatively short length (6,940 yards).
Yet the Program Challenge was decided on the other course, on a watery, 362-yard finishing hole that, for most, required nothing more than a fairway wood off the tee. Well, unless you were playing a mixed, alternate-shot, sudden-death playoff. The only program fit for that challenge was Campbell.