EUGENE, Ore. – From the start, there was a good chance the BYU controversy would be overblown. The conditions wouldn’t be an overwhelming factor and the oddity of other coaches and players watching in on a single team wouldn’t actually be that odd.
We can’t jump to conclusions until Sunday play finishes up, but Thursday’s practice-round-first-round-third-round at the NCAA Women’s Championship honestly didn’t feel that out of order.
BYU opened the NCAA Championship in cool temperatures and off and on rain Thursday with a 10-over 298, a score that actually registered as the group’s third-round total. The Cougars were the only team competing amongst the 24 assembled at Eugene (Ore.) C.C. on Thursday, as BYU has a strict policy, for religious reasons, against playing on Sunday (when the third round of the championship was scheduled to be played) and needed to make up for the day it would miss.
What exactly do you tell golfers, though, before a competitive round that they’ve certainly never played under such conditions?
“We just said, these are moments that set us apart,” said Carrie Roberts, BYU’s head coach. “We’re really good, and we fight. And I told them this is what sets us apart, because we rise in these situations.”
But the situation, in the end, didn’t prove that overwhelming. There’s no question an unusual vibe surfaced on Thursday, especially with the action starting in a delay.
Along with the other 23 teams and 12 individuals in attendance, BYU, which is competing in its first NCAA Championship since 2007, took part in Thursday’s practice round. It was a shotgun 9:30 a.m. local (Pacific) time start, with the practice 18 expected to be complete in time for the first BYU player to tee off at 3:30 p.m.
The Cougars play most of their events in a 36-hole first day, 18-hole second day format, but the team did tail off its intensity near the end of its practice session, focusing on chipping and putting as the round wound down in order to conserve energy.
Even with that, the practice round dragged on nearly six hours. BYU finished up at 3:28 p.m., which necessitated the tee times being pushed back 35 minutes, so that Brooklyn Hocker would get the action started at 4:05 p.m. with the rest of the team going off in seven-minute intervals after that. (Hocker would shoot 9-over 81.)
Once the BYU players got underway, several opposing coaches took to the course to watch the Cougars and get a peek at what to expect in their third rounds. BYU was playing with Sunday hole locations, and Shauna Estes-Taylor, Arkansas’ head coach, said getting the early look helped.
“Maybe we’ll gain a shot,” Estes-Taylor said.
But the extra eyeballs, the 36-hole day and the uniqueness of the situation didn’t seem to eat at the BYU players.
“It didn’t bother us too much. It was fun,” said Kendra Dalton, who opened in 2-under 70 to lead the Cougars charge. “We enjoyed the walk, it’s a beautiful course.”
Let’s not get carried away, though. BYU wasn’t completely immune to the outside forces.
More than other coaches watching, it was playing as singles, rarely seen in competitive college golf, that threw the Cougars for a loop.
Lea Garner, a senior and team captain, said that without the usual competitive round playing partners, she was pretty much “talking to myself the whole day,” and that the issue of proper pacing popped up.
“I kind of felt like I was going really fast on the back (nine), so I had to make sure to calm myself down and walk slowly,” said Garner, who opened in 73. “I found myself walking faster than usual because you’re out there by yourself.”
Controversy has raged over whether BYU playing the third round on Thursday rather than Sunday would be an unfair advantage. One factor in that equation is weather – as in, would Thursday’s conditions be far more favorable than what’s to come on Sunday?
Well, BYU mostly played in cooler temperatures during the Thursday portion of the third round, as the thermometer dipped into the 50s, and the rain did peek through and pour down at times. The forecast for Sunday is similar temperatures with a 70 percent chance of rain. So, for now it seems, that part of the equation remains equal.
Another point of contention was the perception of reduced pressure when the team could go out there solo, but BYU’s group said it still felt similar nerves on Thursday. After all, this was still an NCAA Championship round.
The only real factor that proved advantageous was, actually, that self-pacing Garner said she struggled with.
Maybe it was an adjustment for players to ensure they got to a comfortable stride on their own, but then again they didn’t have to kowtow to playing partners when setting a pace.
“It was kind of cool because we could control our own pace,” Roberts said. “We could slow down if we wanted to, we could go faster if we wanted to. We could control the situation instead of maybe you get stuck with a slow player or a fast player and you’re not used to that or a player that talks a lot and you don’t talk a lot.”
With no other teams in action Thursday, it was difficult for BYU to gauge its performance. Overall, the Cougars seemed to feel 10 over was an OK score, with Roberts noting that she hopes the team can play a little better in the coming days.
BYU will begin its first round at 8:36 a.m. local time Friday and follow that up with a second round on Saturday.
Then an off day Sunday. What are the Cougars’ plans while every other participant will be out on the course?
“We’ll probably go to church, hang out and watch Golf Channel,” Garner said.
Sounds like the Cougars are getting comfortable in their situation.
– Beth Ann Nichols contributed