PARRISH, Fla. – It’s been six years since Jeanne Sutherland brought a team to the Central District Invitational. The last time she was here, at the end of a 14-year coaching career at Texas A&M, Sutherland’s Aggies won it. Technically, Tuesday was a title defense.
That was one of the things Sutherland, in her second season at SMU, told her players the morning before the final round at River Wilderness Golf Club. The Mustangs had a seven-shot deficit to make up on leader Vanderbilt, and by the end of the day they had two shots to spare. SMU’s final-round 5-over 293 was the second lowest on Tuesday, behind rounds of 292 from Denver and Iowa State. Sutherland’s team finished the tournament at 24-over 888, winning a third title this season.
Among the other things discussed in the SMU van on a brisk Tuesday morning was the SMU salsa. It’s the way Sutherland celebrated birdies while on the course with her players. The most spirited dance came at No. 18.
Sutherland spent much of the back nine with Jenny Haglund, SMU’s low scorer at River Wilderness. Playing in the final group with Michigan State’s Caroline Powers and Vanderbilt’s Lauren Stratton, Haglund watched as her opponents struggled to find the green at the narrow 18th.
Haglund missed to the right but holed the 30-foot chip. Sutherland salsa danced, Stratton and Powers bogeyed and SMU’s two-shot swing at that hole was enough to secure the victory.
Tuesday happened to be a heavy coaching day for Sutherland, but she tries to adjust to her players’ needs. Her goal simply was to get Haglund not to sweat the small stuff. The Mustangs needed another low score from the freshman who entered the week No. 4 in the SMU lineup.
“(Jenny) was pressing pretty hard at the beginning of the day,” Sutherland said of spending the second half of the morning with Haglund. “Our goal was that she needed to let it come to her.”
Part of what Sutherland preaches is a strong mental game. At the beginning of the season, she had her team sit down with David Cook, the sports psychologist who authored “Seven Days in Utopia.” SMU’s key words for this season: See it, feel it, trust it. Those combine to create the SFT score for each round.
“Our goal today wasn’t to make up ground or to play against the teams but to see it, feel it, trust it on every shot,” Sutherland said.
SMU players are buying in. Felicia Espericueta compiled a perfect SFT score on Tuesday, Sutherland said. She shot 1-under 71. Haglund conceded her mental game needed work in her final-round 75, but SFT provides a consistent goal.
“I think it has really helped us to trust our shots,” she said. “I think it’s been a great thing for us as a team.”
It’s hard to imagine a coach with a much more positive demeanor than Sutherland. She waited for her players at the clubhouse Tuesday afternoon and offered fist bumps as she collected cards.
“The thing that we have at SMU is incredible depth,” Sutherland said. SMU’s previous two victories of the season came at the Chip N’Club Invitational and the Johnie Imes Invitational. The Central District provided arguably the toughest field of those three victories.
Growing programs is a strength of Sutherland’s. SMU won its first start with Sutherland as coach last fall, breaking a winless streak that dated to 2006. She ended a seven-year winless streak at Texas A&M.
Every victory helps for a team climbing the rankings. SMU ended the 2010-11 season ranked No. 114 by Golfweek. The Mustangs are No. 38 and bound to climb after finishing ahead of No. 12 Vanderbilt and No. 21 Michigan State.
SMU outscored those programs in Round 3 by nine and 12 shots, respectively. Michigan State head coach Stacy Slobodnik-Stoll wasn’t sure what to make of her team’s final round. The Spartans began the day with a chance to win the Central District for the first time since 2008. MSU’s Powers, a senior who lost an eventual scorecard playoff to Augusta State’s Natalie Wille, went 3 under in her opening six holes but finished the round with four consecutive bogeys. It was a similarly lackluster day for her teammates.
The good news? It’s still February, and the Central District offers a chance to learn.
“It’s part of athletics, and for SMU, it’s why we play,” Slobodnik-Stoll said. “… For us, it’s just part of the game. They’re good learning lessons.”