Gophers contend despite distractions

Minnesota's Ernie Rose, director of instruction, and players, Banchalee Theinthong, Michelle Edlin,Teresa Puga, Mary Narzisi, Samantha Sommers and Jackie Shepard during the final round of the UCF Challenge at Red Tail Golf Club.

Minnesota's Ernie Rose, director of instruction, and players, Banchalee Theinthong, Michelle Edlin,Teresa Puga, Mary Narzisi, Samantha Sommers and Jackie Shepard during the final round of the UCF Challenge at Red Tail Golf Club.

Women's Rankings »

RankNameSchoolRating
1Alison LeeUCLA  69.59 
2Annie ParkUSC  69.73 
3Yu LiuDuke  69.81 
4Stephanie MeadowAlabama  70.00 
5Gaby LopezArkansas  70.01 

Women's Team Rankings »

RankNameRatingEvents
1Southern California 70.32 
2UCLA 70.60 
3Duke 70.79 
4Stanford 71.49  10 
5Arkansas 71.52 

SORRENTO, Fla. – Before teeing it up at Red Tail Golf Club on Feb. 13 for the UCF Challenge, Minnesota players had practiced on grass only one time in 2011 – and that was the day before during the practice round. As a snow-heavy winter plagued the Midwest, the Gophers took to the dome, upping their workouts in the mornings and getting in as much indoor practice as they could in the afternoons.

photo

Courtesy photo

Katie Brenny resigned in the fall after only 2 months on the job at the University of Minnesota and had been seeking a financial settlement in lieu of filing a discrimination lawsuit. Those talks have since broken off.

Clearly, it worked. Minnesota took the field by storm during the final round in Sorrento, vaulting to the top of the leaderboard for much of the day before falling two shots short of winner Coastal Carolina. The Gophers finished with a 2-over 286 to get to 5-over 869 for the tournament. Consider also that they were the northern-most team in the 17-team field.

“We’re excited. It’s pretty cold right now in Minnesota, and for the guys to come out and play this well, we’re real happy,” director of instruction Ernie Rose said.

Cold weather isn’t the only thing working against this Minnesota team. The Gophers made the news last fall as women’s head coach Katie Brenny abruptly resigned, then served Director of Golf John Harris with a lawsuit in January. In the lawsuit, Brenny alleges that Harris minimized her coaching duties upon learning that she is a lesbian. Harris, in a brief phone interview with Golfweek, denied the allegations before referring questions to his attorneys.

According to Rose, the players have suffered no ill effects from the headlines.

“Everybody is doing fantastic,” said Rose, who traveled with the team during the fall. “I’ve got an awesome relationship with all the girls and the guys. We couldn’t be happier with how things have been going internally right now. It’s awesome. We have so much fun every day at practice.”

Harris walked with senior standout Teresa Puga for much of the final two rounds at the UCF Challenge, helping her overcome a front-nine 38 on Day 2 with a back-nine 34.

“The second day, I wasn’t playing very good and the fact that he came the second nine holes, that helped me a lot,” Puga said. “It helped me to stay more stable for the round.”

Puga, who led Minnesota’s final-round charge with a 66 that earned her co-medalist honors at 8-under 216, remembers the unpredictability of the Gophers squad that she joined as a freshmen in the fall of 2007. It was rare that two players got hot on the same day. Even last year, Minnesota was left just outside the NCAA bubble as only Puga got an individual invite to regionals. Now she sees four years of hard work paying off for the team, ranked No. 42 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings to start the season.

“We practice extremely hard. We have workouts, a lot of workouts. We put so much effort into it,” said Puga, who is from A Coruña, Spain. “I’m just so happy that ... after four years, it’s paying off.”

At this rate, Minnesota could play its way into many more headlines as postseason nears.

• • •

Sign of progress: Chalk up another close call for Tulane after its runner-up finish at the UCF Challenge on Feb. 15. The Green Wave held the first-round lead, dropped to second after Round 2, then rallied to hold the lead for much of the final round before falling one shot short of Coastal Carolina. Much of that had to do with team-wide struggles at the par-4 18th, where Tulane went 8 over in the second round.

It’s the second runner-up finish for Tulane this year, the first coming at the Golfweek Women’s Conference Challenge in September. Is head coach J.T. Horton worried that his team has an inability to close? Absolutely not. In the 2 1/2 years since Horton re-established the program after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, the Green Wave have five wins and a handful of runner-up finishes. Horton knows those statistics prove Tulane is putting itself right where it needs to be.

“That shows me we’re doing a lot of things right,” Horton said. “We felt like we should have won this tournament, but again the only reason we didn’t was one fluke hole one day. Other than that, we did exactly what we were supposed to do and put ourself in contention to win.”

• • •

Five questions with Alabama’s Stephanie Meadow, a freshman from Jordanstown, Northern Ireland, who earned her first collegiate victory, Feb. 15 at the Lady Puerto Rico Classic.

photo

Alabama freshman Stephanie Meadow

1.) What does it mean to get your first college win as a freshman?

It was a goal of mine to win a tournament. When I actually won, kind of like, ‘Wow, I won this event.’ It’s pretty big to win in my first (year)... To come out as a freshman and not a junior golfer and compete with girls three or four years ahead of me, it’s a big win, and it’s a motivational booster for me. It will just make me work harder, and I know I can do it now. Hopefully I can win some more.

2.) How does this win compare to your many junior victories?

It’s got to be pretty much at the top of my list right now. It’s a completely different level of golf, different situation. There’s a lot more pressure with supporting the team and playing for your team. I feel like this is probably one of the biggest wins I’ve ever had.

3.) What part of your game is the slowest to return in the spring?

I don’t think it’s like a particular part of the game; it’s just like hard to come back and compete and go out there and score. It’s not all about technique or how you hit it; it’s about getting it in the hole.

4.) Do you feel more pressure as a team, knowing you’re the top-ranked program in women’s college golf?

I don’t think so. Our team philosophy is very much one shot at a time, one tournament at a time, one day at a time. We know we’re good, but we’re doing the best we can. ... Our main priority is having a success level that’s high, trying to achieve it no matter what else anybody does. We may be No. 1-ranked, and that’s great, but we have a big season ahead of us, so it’s just as important to stay in the now and not think about nationals or anything else.

5.) What’s the best part of being in college so far?

I think it’s great for me to have independence and grow as a person and learn how to manage yourself. Being able to have friends and support your friends and my team means so much more here than they would in high school because you have to depend on them, really. That’s your life. Your parents are no longer here to help you.

• • •

A look ahead...

What: Central District Invitational

When: Feb. 21-22

Where: River Wilderness Golf Club, Parrish, Fla.

Why it’s important: After a near-miss in Puerto Rico, Iowa State again has a chance to get the big win at the Central District. The Cyclones will encounter stiff competition in LSU (No. 4 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings) and Arkansas (No. 12). Notre Dame (No. 20) also kicks off its spring season in Parrish, and will be looking to build on a fall that included two wins.

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