TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – They went to the mall. They ate. They chipped and putted. They tried not to talk about golf, but by golly they hit refresh on their cell phones at least 1,000 times.
To say it was a long wait for the Fighting Camels would be putting it mildly. Campbell finished alone in the eighth spot after the morning wave and then had to wait more than four hours to find out their fate.
Central Florida was the first team to give them heartburn, followed by an Auburn surge and then a last-minute push from Baylor. In the end, an NCAA tournament official quietly handed a three-ring binder and a flag to head coach John Crooks behind the clubhouse at SouthWood and shook his hand.
For the first time since 1997, Campbell was headed to an NCAA Championship.
“I was trying to act nonchalant,” said Crooks of the maddening wait.
At 64, Crooks already has enough gray hairs under his wide-brimmed straw hat. But that back nine the team put him through was enough to turn the rest of those hairs stark white. Just when Crooks allowed himself to think his team might be doing alright, he hit refresh and saw a 10-shot swing.
Three teams in the morning wave – FSU, Pepperdine and Campbell – were tied for the eighth spot at one point down the final stretch.
Senior Kaylin Yost, the team captain, rallied after a tough start to play the last three holes 1 under. The fate of the Camels came down to sophomore Tahnia Ravnjak, a sophomore from Australia who came to Buies Creek, N.C., because she liked the way Crooks described their tight-knit community on the phone.
Ravnjak, playing in the No. 1 position, hadn’t made a par on the back nine when she came to the last two holes. She’d alternated between birdies and bogeys for Nos. 10-15 and then doubled the par-5 16th with a cold top.
Neither of the Campbell coaches, both named Crooks but no relation, were about to tell Ravnjak what was on the line.
She hit a hybrid 50 feet from the hole on the par-3 17th and drained a downhill breaker from 6 feet for par. On the 18th, Ravnjak hit her second shot to the back left fringe some 30 feet from the hole. She hit a beauty of a putt to within tap-in range and tidied up the biggest par of her young college career.
Crooks said a few words about checking each score as she walked toward the scoring tent.
“It’s important,” he said.
The Camels wound up edging fifth-seeded Pepperdine by one shot and 14-seeded Baylor by two. Campbell, by the way, came in as the 17th seed.
Soon after Crooks concluded his last interview, two players dumped bags of ice over his head.
In 23 years as women’s head coach, Crooks has amassed 75 tournament victories. He has 45 on the mens’ side. Can’t imagine too many victory celebrations have felt much sweeter.
“I’m not supposed to be in coaching,” said Crooks. “When the athletic director asked me if I would consider coaching, I had no background.”
But he certainly knew golf. Crooks played college golf under the legendary Dave Williams at the University of Houston and won the 1967 U.S. Junior title, defeating Andy North.
“I get a lot of enjoyment out of watching people do well,” Crooks said. “When you see somebody figure it out and start showing confidence, that’s the reward.”
Though that rolled-up little NCAA flag sure felt nice.