FRANKLIN, Tenn. – Brooke Pancake maintains that Mic Potter didn’t raise his voice Thursday evening after watching his Alabama team turn what was once a 15-shot lead into a mere two-shot margin. That’s just not Potter’s style.
“He talked to us just like he always does,” Pancake said. Regardless, the message was received.
On a scorching day in middle Tennessee, Alabama took the course in all white, and fought for its first national championship until the final putt — a three-footer for par made by senior Brooke Pancake.
The NCAA Championship didn’t become a true tournament until sunset fell on the penultimate round. That’s when USC pulled within two shots, and Virginia, South Carolina and Purdue lurked four more shots behind.
Alabama and USC pulled away from the field over the first nine holes of the final round, then spent the back nine – the more difficult of the two – trading the lead. With a three-shot advantage on USC, Alabama junior Jennifer Kirby made double bogey at the par-5 18th to drop the Tide’s lead to one. Pancake, in the final group, followed her down the finishing hole, putting her second shot near the ropes and in the trees. She flew a wedge to the back of the green, nearly holed the birdie, then tapped in a par for the first Alabama title in program history.
For Pancake, that final hole is fuzzy.
“Once you’re at this level, you can’t really tell,” she said when asked about the adrenaline rush of carrying a national title on her shoulders. Pancake finished second on the individual leaderboard after leading through much of the first three rounds. Oklahoma sophomore Chirapat Jao-Javanil, who entered the week at No. 40 in Golfweek’ rankings, finished four shots better, at 6-under 282.
In Potter’s mind, that the championship came down to Pancake made perfect sense. Pancake is a student-athlete who never made a B, always has been a leader for the team.
“The kind of student she is and the kind of representative she has been … to have her make that last putt, it’s only fitting,” Potter said.
Potter is a 29-year veteran of college women’s golf, arriving at Alabama seven years ago after a successful career at Furman. Players like Pancake and Hannah Collier call him more than a coach. Said Pancake, “He has had such a career and he needed a national championship under his belt.”
It’s one of the reasons he came to Alabama, but Potter doesn’t place the worth of his career on NCAA hardware.
USC head coach Andrea Gaston doesn’t either. Though the Trojans finished one shot short of winning a third national championship title under Gaston, they landed in the top 5 for the seventh consecutive year.
“I’ve been on the other side of it in 1987 with a one-shot loss,” Potter said. “I definitely feel for Southern Cal.”
Gaston can count — on two hands — something about each of each of the past seven NCAA Championships that made the week special, from comebacks to losing players to injury to this year’s fearsome fivesome.
When freshman Kristen Park turned professional in the spring, Gaston told her remaining five players that it was up to them what they made of the rest of the season. They went on to win the Central Regional by a 25-shot margin.
Still, as her team hung their collective heads to the side of the 18th green, Gaston could legitimately ask this question: “Did we peak? Under these conditions, we still didn’t get the best out of it.”
USC counted the best finish of the Pac-12 programs that often are heralded simply as the Big Three. Top-ranked and top-seeded UCLA never made a real run and finished eighth. Arizona State, which last won this championship in 2009, was T-6.
Alabama becomes the second team in the past two years to win a national title for the first time. That speaks to the depth of women’s college golf, and so does the fact that the championship didn’t come down to just Alabama and USC. LSU finished with the third-best round of the day and sat to the side of the 18th green as, slowly, the championship came back to them. At one point, the Tigers were tied with USC as Alabama held a one-shot lead. They finished one shot behind USC for third, the best finish in the history of the program.
A big part of that comeback happened at the final hole, where all but one LSU player went for the par 5 in two. The Tigers went a combined 10-under on Nos. 9 and 18.
“It’s so exciting to see how close it came down to,” Bahnsen said.
For Bahnsen, it was a risk that paid off. For the crowd, it was worth the price of admission.