Bruins win NCAA Division I Women’s Championship
Leave it to a team of Hollywood hotshots to rewrite Duke’s fairy-tale ending. The Blue Devils came to last week’s NCAA Division I Women’s Championship prepared to put the finishing touches on a season touted as the best in college history.
But an overshadowed UCLA team and an underachieving Oklahoma State squad threw in a dramatic plot twist.
Weather delays, scoring snafus and unsung heroes added to the tournament’s suspense as UCLA held on May 22 to win its first NCAA Championship title in 13 years.
“This is absolutely a dream come true,” said sophomore Susie Mathews, who led the Bruins with a third-place finish. “It’s hard to believe what we were able to come out here and do this week as a team.”
While UCLA held the lead the majority of the tournament, a clear-cut champion wasn’t decided until the 72nd hole.
OSU stunned the nation’s top two teams by taking control on Day 1 at Grand National’s Lake Course. After barely making it to the finals – squeaking past Florida in a playoff for the eighth spot at the East Regional – 10 days later the Cowgirls took a one-shot lead over Duke and UCLA with an even-par 288.
But the Bruins steadily built a five-stroke lead over the next two rounds thanks to Mathews’ sparkling performance. The petite Australian dipped into the 60s for the first time this season with a 3-under-par 69 on Day 2, followed by a third-round 68.
The Cowgirls carded the team’s lowest round of the year on Day 3, a 6-under 282, to seize the second slot while Duke headed into the final round trailing by seven.
“Trailing” is a relatively unknown term in Duke dialect. The Blue Devils won nine of 10 events in 2003-04 by an average of 21.9 strokes and were No. 1 in the Golfweek/ Sagarin College Rankings the entire season.
Still, two veterans on Dan Brooks’ squad know what it’s like to stage a sensational comeback. The last time Duke traveled to a town named Auburn (Wash.) for the NCAA Championship, seniors Leigh Anne Hardin and Virada Nirapathpongporn helped Duke gain nine shots over the last three holes to overtake Arizona and win the 2002 title.
At the start of Day 4, a little deja vu seemed on tap as Duke pulled to within two strokes of UCLA midway through the front nine. But the threat of lightning pulled players off the course for over three hours, giving the Bruins time to regroup.
By the time the Blue Devils returned to action at 6:30 p.m. (CST), their streak had cooled considerably. Liz Janangelo, the nation’s top-ranked player, went bogey, double bogey before play was again suspended because of darkness. Freshman Brittany Lang also was 3 over after the delay, dropping Duke farther down the leaderboard.
When coaches and players left the course Friday, the scoreboard indicated that UCLA held a three-shot lead over Duke and was four in front of OSU with 10 holes to play. It wasn’t until the National Golf Coaches Association awards banquet later that evening that Brooks was notified his team actually trailed by five, placing Duke in third.
On a muggy Alabama morning, Mathews caught fire early, making birdies on three of her first four holes. Teammate Charlotte Mayorkas, ranked No. 2, also carded three birdies early Saturday.
The Cowgirls didn’t back down, however, squaring the tournament at 2 under thanks to gusty back-nine performances from Annie Thurman and Karin Sjodin.
By the time Sjodin and Mathews reached the 18th hole, however, UCLA had regained a three-shot cushion. Playing in the final group, both players hit their approach shots within 18 feet. Mathews made par to clinch the title for the Bruins, but Sjodin still had a weighty putt of her own.
Although she was unaware at the time, a birdie on the final hole would’ve landed Sjodin in a playoff with California’s Sarah Huarte for the individual title. The Swede’s birdie putt slid past the right side of the hole, however, leaving Huarte victorious at 10-under 278.
The Bruins finished the tournament at 4-under 1,148 with OSU three shots back. Duke never led during the five-day event and finished 7 over.
“Couldn’t get anything going this week,” Nirapathpongporn said. “I think that’s the story with everyone. We’ve had our winning days. Some days you lose.”
Mayorkas led the way on Day 4 with a 70 to finish fourth, while Mathews shot 72. Seniors Gina Umeck (73) and Krystal Shearer (75) rounded out the Bruins’ lineup.
“We were struggling when they halted play (Friday) and we really had to regroup. Today we were so much more poised,” UCLA coach Carrie Forsyth said. “This is one of the greatest feelings I’ve ever had.”
For OSU, the finale was bittersweet. The Cowgirls, winless on the season, played their best golf of the year when it counted.
“This is what we wanted to do – be in position to win,” OSU coach Amy Weeks said. “We just ran out of golf holes.”
For the Bruins, it seemed a long time coming. With playing privileges at LA’s most exclusive tracks and on-campus practice facilities that overlook Sunset Boulevard, UCLA has no problem recruiting a wealth of talent. And after two fifth-place finishes in three years at the NCAA finals, Forsyth and Co. finally got everything to click.
Seven victories and a national championship.
“We were making our dreams a reality one day after another and it ended perfectly,” said Umeck.
Hollywood wouldn’t have it any other way.