Consider the LSU Classic a double story of redemption. It was a giant leap in the recovery process for co-medalists Catherine O’Donnell of North Carolina and Erica Popson of Tennessee, both of whom underwent left thumb surgery in the offseason. Having both players healthy and back on the roster – and winning again – amounts to a big boost for their respective teams.
For Popson, learning to play with a tender left thumb has shaped her game. Abbreviated range sessions ruled out ultra-technical swing changes that would require lots of repetition to groove, and there has been a lot of extra attention to her short game.
Popson had just learned to live with the pain, ending last spring with four consecutive tournament titles (one was a tie) that included both the SEC Championship and the NCAA West Regional.
“Last spring was amazing. I was in so much pain trying to play golf but I was still playing good golf, so all of our doctors here were really hesitant about doing anything,” she said. “Now that I feel good and play good golf, it’s even better.”
The LSU Classic was Popson’s second start after surgery, and although she still rehabs her left hand four or five times per week and limits range sessions to a single bag of balls, she’s inching closer to 100 percent.
“If I hit it into a divot or if I have a bunker shot, I can stand over it and be like, ‘Oh this is not going to hurt my hand,’” Popson said. “It gives me extra confidence.”
O’Donnell, in her senior season at North Carolina, is singing a similar tune. By the time she arrived at the difficult University Club in Baton Rouge, La., she had shaken off the rust from her first start the week prior at the Darius Rucker Invitational. After a winter of little more than mirror work, she thinks she might be swinging as well as ever.
What: Battle at Rancho Bernardo
When: March 18-20
Where: Rancho Bernardo Inn Championship GC
Why it’s important: A 16-team field with six of Golfweek’s top 20 teams. Keep an eye on USC and also California, a team coming off two victories already this spring. The biggest story, however, would be a win by Arizona, a team that also has two titles this spring after a slow fall. A third win would be big news for this program, which already has moved from a No. 24 ranking at the start of the spring to No. 6.
Still, it has been a frustrating season. O’Donnell consulted multiple hand surgeons after she began feeling pain last March and couldn’t figure out what was causing it in time to have the surgery over the summer. She tried to stay away from the course as much as possible to give it rest, but couldn’t resist competing at the World University Games in Spain – a good decision considering she won the gold medal.
As the pain got progressively worse in the fall, O’Donnell had to withdraw in the final round of the NCAA Fall Preview and miss the Landfall Tradition entirely. It was the first tournament of her college career that she had spent on the sidelines.
“It was definitely tough watching (the online scoring on) Golfstat,” she said.
More appreciative of the game now, O’Donnell is working on building momentum for her final postseason. She’s proud of playing smart at LSU – having good misses, accepting bogeys to avoid higher scores and carding only one double bogey on the week.
“It’s reassuring that I made the right decision by having surgery,” she said.
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Not in Kansas anymore: When the Jayhawks arrived in heavenly Rio Verde, Ariz., for the Western Michigan-hosted Rio Verde Invitational, it had been two years since their last tournament title. Against a mountainous desert backdrop, Kansas shot the lowest team score since the event went to 54 holes in 2005 – 48-over 900 – to win by three shots over Missouri State.
Kansas, No. 95 in Golfweek’s rankings, was tied for fourth entering the final round and trailed tournament leader Akron by six shots. Senior Katy Nugent led the final-round charge with her 4-under 68. She was the individual runner-up, and teammate Audrey Yowell (T-6) also finished in the top 10.
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Five questions with Idaho senior Kayla Mortellaro, who won the Dr. Donnis Thompson Invitational on March 14 for her ninth career collegiate victory.
1. Nine collegiate victories – that’s quite a feat. What was your initial reaction to that?
I didn’t really realize it was No. 9 until my coach asked me how many wins it was, and then I was like, ‘You know what? It is nine.’ It’s pretty impressive and I’m still kind of in shock about it all really.
2. Can you separate them in your mind or do they all blend together? If so, of which are you most proud?
I can pretty much separate them because each has a unique story behind it and each I had different feelings going into it. Some of them I had the lead going into the last day, some I had to come from behind to win. In each the conditions were different, so I think each is special in its own way.
Probably the WAC Championship last year as a junior (is the best). You always want to win your conference championship, and that was the win that put me over the edge to have the (Idaho) record for the most wins at the time and so it was kind of just the victory that I wanted the most.
3. You came from behind to win at the Donnis – do you like chasing or playing with a lead?
I really don’t think it matters to me. This week particularly, the final round when we started off it was really windy, so it just took a lot of grinding and mental strength to be like, ‘OK, let’s just keep focusing on each shot and not getting frustrated or discouraged and have patience.’ I think each is different in its own way because when you play with the lead, you still want to be aggressive but you don’t want to be overly aggressive.
4. You’ve won this tournament before (as a freshman for her first collegiate win). Tell me about the course.
I think it’s definitely a ballstriker’s course because the greens are fairly small compared to a lot of the other courses that we play, and it is so windy at times that you need to be able to flight the ball low and just have more control over what you’re doing. I would say that the strength of my game is my ballstriking, so that just played into my hands.
5. Spending the past four years in Idaho after growing up in Arizona must have been a big change. How do you think that’s improved your game?
It forced me to go practice in inclement weather. It forced me to learn how to deal with the rain and stuff, and I guess in a way, learn to love it. When you’re from Arizona, if it’s a bad-weather day, you just say, ‘Oh, I’ll go out tomorrow when it’s nicer.’ So it just forced me to learn how to play in all the different conditions, which is one of the reasons why I picked going to Idaho in the first place. I think it’s made me a more well-rounded player – and hopefully more successful for the future.