• • •
ATHENS, Ga. –– USC’s national championship will go down in the books next to a number of descriptor, blowout and runaway chief among them. But a 21-shot victory on Friday at the University of Georgia Golf Course amounted to something else for the Trojans: a final endurance test.
“There is no big lead when you have conditions like this,” USC head coach Andrea Gaston said of a windy final round in the 72-hole national championship. “I saw so much fight from all of these girls.”
The Trojans took a 17-shot lead into the final round, which inspired another adjective: insurmountable.
Such an advantage can evaporate at a surprising rate in team golf, but USC barely gave up a stroke over the opening holes. USC shot even-par 288 in the final round, which was the lowest team score for the fourth consecutive day, to finish at 19-under 1,133.
It’s the first time in championship history that a team has outscored every other opponent in every round since Tulsa accomplished the feat in 1982 at the first NCAA Women’s Golf Championship. USC’s 19-under total blows away the previous championship scoring record of 4 under.
Freshman Annie Park is a big reason for all those marks falling. The 18-year-old finished the final round bogey-double bogey-birdie, but at 10 under, still was six shots ahead of runner-up Lindy Duncan of Duke, last season’s player of the year. Among the lore that will go down with Park’s victory is her ability to hit every par 5 in two on the University of Georgia Golf Course. She nearly reached the par-5 12th with a driver and a 7-iron in Round 3, but a tailwind let up as she struck her approach.
Park was a welcome addition to USC’s spring roster after she graduated high school early and joined the Trojans at midseason. Since the junior golf world last saw her, Park has gained noticeable yardage throughout the bag, something she attributes to structured workouts with the team. USC assistant coach Justin Silverstein walked with Park through much of the championship. In a word, Silverstein said, her game is about stability.
“We don’t have a bounce-back stat in college golf,” Silverstein said. “But if we did, (Annie’s) would be pretty high.”
The whole team knows how to bounce back, something that three of the five players learned the hard way when the Trojans lost to Alabama by one shot a year ago at this tournament. That’s old news, but it doesn’t take away the sting.
“I think it just gave us a lot of fire,” junior Rachel Morris said of last year’s heartbreaking loss.
The NCAA Championship was spring start No. 8 for the Trojans, whose season ended in a vastly different way than it began. The Trojans played their three fall starts with five players, pulling in walk-on Kimberly Santiago to have the option of a dropped score. USC finished third, third and first in the fall, but still was holding out for Park.
“We were so strong for a little team,” said junior Sophia Popov.
Park, a 5-foot-9 New Yorker, did more than contribute. Her run-up to the national championship included a Pac-12 title and the NCAA West Regional title.
Popov says the team survived and benefited from playing with a slim roster because they knew what was ahead. For players like Morris, it was the necessary kick to take her game to the next level. Silverstein calls Morris the most improved player on the team. This season’s stroke average was the lowest of her career
The team won five times in the spring, not counting the national championship. The drop score got lower and the Trojans continued to put into practice the every-shot-counts adage learned in the fall. As Morris explained, “That just helps all of us.”
As for Park, even Gaston didn’t expect such strong play right out of the gate. Park may have surprised even herself, but the scouting report on her was big. Teammates knew she would spell relief from Day 1, whether or not that meant winning the national championship.
“This result was very unexpected for myself,” Park said. “I was just trying to play my best each round and each shot. . . . It feels great.”
Georgia head coach Josh Brewer helped recruit many of the players on USC’s roster, Park among them, and stood behind the 18th green watching as USC won a national championship on the course he now calls home. The victory wasn’t surprising, but to someone who knows these fairways, the winning margin was.
A 21-shot victory provides just cause to storm a green and dump a cooler on an unsuspecting coach, and USC didn’t waste that opportunity. The Trojans hit the 18th green with fire in their legs, as if they hadn’t just done 72 holes of battle.
But as Brewer will tell you, Gaston’s teams “are always fresh” come postseason. That’s a proven strategy from the veteran coach, who has experienced success with many coaching moves through the years. This national title is the third in her 17 seasons with the Trojans.
Another page from Gaston’s coaching manual says to trust your players in times of pressure.
“You have to let your thoroughbreds run,” Gaston said.
In Athens, they lapped the field.