FRANKLIN, Tenn. – Brooke Pancake’s golf career truly comes full circle this week. The progress is marked, to say the least.
From the parking lot at Vanderbilt’s Legends Club, Pancake could look through a tree line and see the very spot where it first began. As her Alabama teammates loaded their clubs into the team van Monday afternoon, Pancake, who grew up in the area, remembered her first competitive round as a junior golfer. That was played at The Little Course, a nine-hole course next to this week’s tournament venue.
Pancake, then 9 years old, didn’t even sign up for that event. Her grandfather, responsible for teaching her the game, signed up for her. Pancake remembers being very nervous about that tournament, but is quick to make this point: Though she can’t remember her score, one other player finished behind her on the leaderboard that day. Pancake still has never finished last in a tournament.
“There was no turning back from there,” she said.
The Alabama senior, ranked No. 7 by Golfweek, enters her final week as a collegiate golfer among a handful of players with the game to win the NCAA Championship. One way or another, her college golf career ends Friday. Pancake couldn’t imagine a better place to cap it.
2. Good to be a Commodore: Vanderbilt knows how to throw a party. The host team welcomed the other 23 teams in the national championship field to their hometown Sunday evening with a private concert from country star Vince Gill. The city of Franklin shut down 4th Avenue so the players could gather under a tent for dinner before moving to Franklin Theater for a private acoustic session from Gill.
“It was a great night,” Vanderbilt junior Lauren Stratton said of her first time hearing Gill perform. “Very intimate setting.”
After a solid 5-hour practice session the day before the championship, Stratton sounded a bit like a kid on Christmas Eve. Hard not to when the national championship is being hosted at your home course.
“We’ve talked about it forever,” she said. “We’re ready to get it started.”
The timing couldn’t be better for Stratton, either. The junior climbed as high as No. 2 in Golfweek’s rankings early in the spring, but was sidelined through much of March with kidney stones. She played through the pain at the LSU Golf Classic, falling down the leaderboard as it got worse, before having surgery shortly after. Stratton declares herself 100 percent healthy this week, which is a good thing for Vanderbilt. She and two-time SEC player of the year Marina Alex, a senior, are the bread and butter of this team.
3. Familiar territory: Texas head coach Martha Richards is having a bit of deja vu this week at the national championship. Richards coached at Vanderbilt from 2001 to 2007 and says the school still holds a “prime place in my heart.”
Richards’ Longhorns are on a high heading into the first round, and it doesn’t hurt that she will be able to provide some local knowledge. The team took a confidence boost from its final two rounds of the Big 12 Conference Championship, then finished T-2 at the NCAA East Regional. Richards feels some good vibes coming from a squad she has called her deepest yet.
“The kids feel really comfortable here,” Richards said.
Legends Club has undergone green renovations since Richards’ departure — Bermudagrass replaced the bent grass that previously covered the putting surfaces — but Richards said the shapes and contours are just as she remembers them.
“The golf course is absolutely as good as I’ve ever seen it,” she said.
4. Crisis averted: UCLA head coach Carrie Forsyth was happy to report Monday afternoon that all of her Bruins arrived in Franklin feeling healthy and rested. The only problem was, only four sets of golf clubs arrived with them.
The odd woman out was junior Tiffany Lua, who had to sit out of the Bruins’ Sunday practice round at the Legends Club while she waited for her clubs to catch up with her. That minor glitch aside, Forsyth said the Bruins are ready to get down to business.
“Everybody has done what they needed to do to be ready,” she said of the top-ranked and top-seeded team. After seven wins this season, including the NCAA Preview played here in September, UCLA enters the week the clear favorite.
5. Start of a golf marathon: Arkansas’ Emily Tubert has a potentially long summer of golf ahead of her. So do her six U.S. Curtis Cup teammates who also made the trip to Franklin this week (the only one left on the sidelines was North Dakota State’s Amy Anderson).
At the close of the championship, the Curtis Cuppers will shuck their team uniforms and don U.S. attire to try for a Cup in Nairn, Scotland. That battle takes place June 8-11. Soon after, Tubert comes home for the U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links (a tournament she won in 2010), then will play the LPGA’s Northwest Arkansas Open. If all goes according to plan, she also will have qualified for the U.S. Women’s Open, to be played the following week.
It’s at this point in the conversation that Tubert pulls back the sleeve of her polo shirt to show just the faintest tan line. She’d spent the past week working to get rid of it.
“It’s going to come back this summer,” she said.