FRANKLIN, Tenn. – When Brooke Pancake was just a tot, her grandfather took her to a golf camp put on by Golf House Tennessee. It was a weeklong co-ed camp, and Pancake and Jim Eaken were teary-eyed when it was time to drop her off.
“I’m sure I’ll be back after tomorrow,” Eaken, known as Jimbo, told his wife.
Instead, he came back a week later.
“When that happened, I knew that golf had taken on her,” Eaken said.
It was here on a short course known simply as the Little Course that Pancake, from Chattanooga, learned the game. Now a senior in college, the striking blonde who aced her way through Alabama exams sits atop the leaderboard after two rounds of the NCAA Championship. As a team, the Crimson Tide separated themselves from the field in Wednesday’s second round with a 3-under 285 at Vanderbilt Legends Club’s North Course. Alabama, at 5-under 571, sits 11 shots ahead of top-ranked UCLA, North Carolina and Virginia.
South Carolina, on the strength of a tournament-best 7-under 281, is tied for fifth with Arizona State at 583. USC (585), LSU (587), Purdue (588) and Vanderbilt (590) round out the top 10 with 36 holes to play.
For Alabama, it’s a 180-degree turn from last year’s performance. The Tide, five-time winners last season, tanked in the second round of NCAAs, shooting a season-high 15-over 303. They finished the halfway mark tied for 15th.
“I hate to admit it, but for an Alabama program that hadn’t been there, it’s something you have to go through,” head coach Mic Potter said.
They’ve seemingly learned how to deal with the expectations, extending their lead against a proven Bruins squad. Three Alabama players birdied the par-5 18th, including Jennifer Kirby with a strong up-and-down from a fairway bunker to shoot 71.
Potter noted that his team has posted one double bogey in 36 holes. With greens that are firming up in hot, dry weather, Potter knows they can’t avoid bogeys. But keeping away from big errors might be enough to boost ’Bama to its first national title in the program’s history.
To get to the top, it takes a great amount of depth. Potter has three players – Pancake, Kirby and Stephanie Meadow – who are within .24 strokes of one another. This trio of All-Americans form as strong of a nucleus as any team in the country. It’s the fourth position, however, that wins championships.
Hannah Collier posted a clutch 1-under 71 for the Tide on Wednesday, giving them three players under par. Considering that 15 months ago Collier struggled to break 90, it’s an incredible turnaround for Potter’s program.
“Really, her biggest obstacle now is she doesn’t know how good she is,” said Potter, who helped Collier turn her snap hook into a draw. She now also has a fade in her arsenal. Potter said the Legends Club sets up perfectly for a long, high-ball hitter like Collier.
“Depth in college golf is really important,” Potter said. “I don’t think your fifth player is going to win a tournament for you. If they can make everybody else comfortable, that’s key.”
Junior Courtney McKim, a transfer from Oklahoma State, rounds out the Tide lineup. She tied for 10th at the NCAA Championship as a freshman, and shot 82-77 this week.
Potter, now in his 30th year of coaching, came to Tuscaloosa from Furman seven years ago. At that point, Alabama hadn’t been to an NCAA Championship since 1987. That’s a fairly shocking stretch, given the success of Southeastern Conference programs such as Georgia and Auburn, plus the resources available.
Potter turned things around immediately, leading ’Bama to the national finals that first year (2006) and repeating the feat each year since. The Tide have won 15 team titles under Potter, including three this season, and 13 individual crowns. In 78 tournaments, Potter’s teams have finished in the top three 38 times.
“I think you have to learn by being there to handle expectations,” Potter said.
Well, the Crimson Tide have arrived – now mentally as much as physically.
As Pancake made her way around the Vanderbilt Legends Club, she looked over at the young girls plugging away on the adjacent Little Course. She’d come full circle since the day her grandfather dropped her off for golf camp.
“I don’t remember too much,” Pancake said. “I just know that I loved it.”