College Preview: A pitch for pizazz at NCAAs
There were scalpers outside the stadium. Inside, it was standing-room only. Just beyond the outfield, Texans sat in the beds of their pickups, sizing up the instate competition. School was out for the summer at Texas A&M, but fans packed Olsen Field for a regular-season baseball game against the Longhorns as if it were the NCAA Championship.
Actually, that was taking place a few miles down the road at A&M’s Traditions Club in Bryan. Only the NCAA Division I Women’s Golf Championship felt like a ghost town in comparison. A few diehards carried around Fatheads of the home team, but until Purdue senior Thea Hoffmeister signed for an incorrect scorecard after the final round to give UCLA an easier path to victory, the event was an all-out snoozefest. College Station did not deliver the atmosphere its name suggested. At least not for golf.
“It was boring this year at the championship,” Georgia coach Kelley Hester said. “Granted, I was there with an individual and not a team.”
The issue isn’t one of talent. The women’s game has never been deeper. And, by and large, the best team wins each year. But it’s hard to watch what’s going on over on the men’s side and not feel slighted. Two years ago, the men’s NCAA Division I Championship changed to a combination of stroke play (54-hole qualifier) and match play. Even from a distance, it looks like a lot more fun.
“I don’t think anybody could argue that it’s not more exciting,” said Oklahoma State coach Alan Bratton, “which is why the change was made.”
Bratton has been a part of 13 NCAA Championships on the men’s side and just one with the women. He was named women’s head coach in Stillwater this summer.
For those at men’s powerhouse Oklahoma State to still give the new format a ringing endorsement despite losing the past three championships speaks volumes.
There’s drama throughout the first three days as teams jockey for positions in the top eight. After the 54-hole cut, each day begins anew for match play. There are no runaways. Teams that wouldn’t have a chance in a four-day, stroke-play event suddenly are brought into the conversation.
Arizona State coach Melissa Luellen picked Bratton’s brain about the subject on the recruiting trail this summer. Her main concern is that the best team might not win, but she wouldn’t complain if the format changed. She concedes it’s something her players probably would enjoy, but like Bratton, she’d rather see a medal/match format than traditional match play.
In medal/match, players play for points based on their 18-hole scores. It is more fan-friendly, Bratton points out, because play always would end on the 18th hole, rather than possibly the middle of the course. Ties would be settled with a team playoff.
Cincinnati coach Janet Carl, who will take over as National Golf Coaches Association president next year, said most coaches with whom she has spoken aren’t in favor of changing the championship’s format. Many, such as UCLA coach Carrie Forsyth, think it’s odd to compete in stroke play all season, then switch to match play for the championship. Of course, medal/match play would solve that problem, though Forsyth isn’t keen on that idea, either.
There’s no guarantee, however, that a change in format would’ve boosted attendance in College Station. Perhaps it’s time the women also begin looking for a permanent home for their championship.
Of the past nine NCAA Championships, Wilmington, N.C., produced the most fans (especially those unrelated to players) and the biggest buzz. The 2010 event, held over the Dye Course at the Country Club of Landfall, featured a menacing, watery par 3 toward the start, a reachable par 5 to close and a winning team score of 1 over par. The course was convenient for local residents, and many teams stayed on the beach. There was even a trolley that dropped off fans at the clubhouse. That’s right – a trolley.
Bratton would like to see the women’s game find a place “that would really embrace the championship . . . what Omaha (Neb.) is to college baseball.” Rotating between two sites on both coasts also would work, he said.
There are so many former LPGA stops out there with a volunteer corps in place and a community that celebrates women’s golf. If Wilmington isn’t interested in anything long-term, the NGCA should shop around the abandoned LPGA venues. Most of those tournaments didn’t disappear because they were unloved by the locals.
Basketball’s “March Madness” gets its name because of upsets in a single-elimination bracket. College football bowls are decided over four quarters, not four days. Why can’t women’s college golf adopt a similar do-or-die format?
“The last time you had an outlier (win the title) was when Georgia won in 2001,” Hester said.
Time to shake things up.