FRANKLIN, Tenn. — Who needs match play at a national championship when anything can happen in stroke play?
That was evident Thursday in the last hour of the NCAA Championship. At one time, Alabama had increased its lead to 15 shots on the back nine at the Vanderbilt Legends Club’s North Course. Now, with the players off the course and the superintendent’s crew prepping for Friday’s final round, that lead has shrunk to two shots.
And look who is within striking distance: A Southern California team that came to Tennessee this week fresh off a 25-shot victory at the NCAA Central Regional and Purdue, which has placed first and second in the last two national championships. These two teams are very dangerous, with players who have experience closing.
South Carolina and Virginia also are in the game. Expect them to play with no fear Friday, because nobody would have predicted their having a shot entering the final round to win the championship. They have have one victory in 20 combined starts this year. But, both seem capable. South Carolina has won two regional titles in the past three years, but winning tournaments is not something that has been common lately. It would be hard to think that the Gamecocks could close the gap and seal the deal on the biggest stage.
How far back is too far back?
If you look a little deeper in the team standings, you’ll find a few other teams that could make a run up the leaderboard. LSU, North Carolina and Arizona State are within 10 shots of Alabama, and top-ranked UCLA is 11 back.
Eleven shots is not that much in team golf. We saw that in the final hour Thursday.
But, back to Alabama. Head coach Mic Potter said earlier in the week that the goal this week was not necessarily to win. The goal was to play their best. Potter added that you can’t control what your opponents do. He is absolutely correct in that, and I am sure he and his team know that Thursday’s third-round play was not anywhere near their best. Alabama’s 18-over 306 was better than only five teams in the 24-team field.
Can Alabama bounce back? Sure, the Tide can recover from their late-round missteps. Why? They have three of the top 10 players in the country, and Potter is the coach. There is no question Potter, a 30-year veteran coach, is one of the best coaches in the game – men or women. But, his squad will be tested in Friday’s final round. The Crimson Tide will need to erase from their memory what happened on the final holes and remember what got them to the position they were in after 36 holes. That will be the effort needed to win the school’s first women’s golf national championship.
One more thing: Any talk about match play, which has been part of the past three men’s championships, finding its way to the women’s side might be shelved a little longer. With one round to go, we now have a tournament.