Josh Brewer had decided to transform the Liz Murphey Collegiate even before the final word came out last fall that the NCAA Women’s Championship would transition to match play in 2015. Brewer, head women’s coach at Georgia, was looking for a way to make the Bulldogs’ home event, one of the longest-running women’s events on the East Coast, look a little different in its 42nd year. The result is a high-stakes, late-season battle among some of the nation’s top teams for trophy, pride and, ultimately, ranking.
In place of a traditional 54-hole stroke-play event, Brewer has assembled a weekend-long match-play event with a 16-team field that, most notably, includes USC and Alabama, the previous two NCAA team champions. The tournament will begin April 4 with 18 holes of stroke-play qualifying. The top 8 teams then advance to the red bracket and the bottom eight teams will play in the black bracket. The quarterfinals and semifinals take place April 5 and the championship and consolation matches will be played April 6. During match play, players will compete in foursomes, with two singles matches going on in each group.
A stroke-play team and individual champion will be named at the end of Day 1, and the tournament will count in Golfstat as an 18-hole stroke-play event. It’s where head-to-head ranking enters the picture.
A highly ranked team could suffer a significant fall in the rankings with a mediocre day, but it’s another chance for a lower-ranked team to gain valuable head-to-head victories. (Beginning next year, match play will also count toward Golfstat head-to-head ranking.)
That can be a risky proposition for a coach. In 2011, facing a Kikkor Golf Husky Invitational shortened to 18 holes because of weather, Washington head coach Matt Thurmond offered coaches an opportunity to withdraw so they wouldn’t have to count an 18-hole loss. More than half the field chose that option.
Though the stakes are high, Brewer’s format change answers a common concern voiced after match play was announced as a possibility for the national championship: players don’t see it all season.
“Most (coaches) are really interested in what’s going to happen,” he said of those who are bringing a team to the Liz Murphey. “I think they’re curious how it’s going to play out. I think they’re excited but very hesitant.”
After top-ranked USC, Arkansas carries the next-best ranking at No. 5. The Liz Murphey has been a staple on Arkansas’ schedule for the past several years, but to prepare for this year’s event, head coach Shauna Estes-Taylor had her Razorbacks playing “Souie Solheim” matches back home at Blessings Golf Club in Fayetteville, Ark. Estes-Taylor will use the Liz as a look at how her players will handle a match-play competition. Most are well-versed in the format.
“I think college golf in general is very used to the match-play format,” she said of women’s golf transitioning to a match-play national championship. “I don’t know that it’s that big of a change for us.”
For Mississippi State, No. 25 in Golfweek’s rankings and two team titles deep this season, the Liz Murphey – and match play in general – presents a great opportunity.
“We’ve got such competitors on our team that I think the change of (format) might just enact some of that fire and spirit late in the season,” head coach Ginger Brown-Lemm said. “It’s a great thing. Sometimes you want something different.”
Brown-Lemm said there “was no negative” in committing, especially considering the University of Georgia Golf Course was the site of last year’s national championship, where Mississippi State made a program-first appearance.
“I’m looking so forward to being in that field, knowing that someday we’ll be in the top 8,” she said.
If all goes well for Brewer’s Bulldogs, the Liz Murphey could be a kickstart for a team that’s been bobbing its head just inside Golfweek’s top 50, searching all season for its breakthrough. Brewer sent four individuals to the John Kirk Panther Collegiate this week and watched them collectively put up three rounds under par. That’s one more than Georgia players have posted so far this season.
“The team is fired up back home,” Brewer said. “I think it’s the shot of energy we needed.”
Brewer can’t help but wonder what might happen should Georgia draw a match against USC or Alabama. Even a date with SEC rival Auburn could get an Athens crowd in a frenzy.
And that, in a nutshell, is match play. As Brewer says, “Your normal person can relate to it.”