Oklahoma edges UC Davis to win Challenge
Wednesday, September 21, 2011
WOLCOTT, Colo. – All that could be heard Wednesday afternoon behind the Red Sky clubhouse were murmurings of random addition and subtraction. Even with every player in the clubhouse, nearly half the field still had a shot at winning the team title. Scorecards floated through the crowd to the scoring table and tabulations were made. Eventually, Oklahoma found its way back to the top of the leaderboard for its first title since last October’s Dale McNamara Invitational.
On a day when seven different teams held the top spot on the leaderboard, the Golfweek Conference Challenge came down to the five birdies Oklahoma carded in its final five holes. The Sooners moved five shots ahead of UC Davis, and the rest of the leaderboard fell into place behind them.
As her team played its way into the clubhouse on a postcard day at the Fazio Course, Oklahoma head coach Veronique Drouin employed a strategy shared by many of her counterparts.
“I knew the girls were playing well, and I knew there were some birdies coming in on 1, 2 and 3, but really I didn’t even tell them anything,” she said. “They just kind of did their own thing.”
It’s a different team dynamic this year in Norman without Ellen Mueller, one of the strongest players to emerge from the Oklahoma program in recent history. After Mueller’s graduation, sophomore Chirapat Jao-Javanil emerged to fill those shoes, and in Colorado she finished at 1-over 217 to capture the individual title, the first of her career.
Drouin walked the final five holes with the player teammates affectionately call “Ja,” offering reassurance for the Thailand native’s first mountain golf experience. Her final-round 72 was crucial in getting the Sooners to the top of the leaderboard.
“We’re just really proud of each other because we all try to support each other,” Ja said. “We weren’t in the best position after the second round, so it felt really good.”
The show wasn’t just about Ja, however. The late-round birdies were spread evenly among the team. Sophomore Anne Tanguay tied for eighth at 8-over 224, and sophomore Jade Staggs and junior Taylor Schmidt both contributed rounds of 72 as Oklahoma erased a seven-shot deficit.
“We’re young and everyone had to step up a little bit and be good leaders,” Drouin said. “I think everyone is doing their part.”
A Conference Challenge victory would have been equally huge for many of the surrounding teams. Runner-up UC Davis was looking for its second consecutive win this season after a victory at its season-opening Ptarmigan Ram Classic in nearby Fort Collins, Colo. A win for Tulsa – which finished third, two shots back, after leading for much of the finishing holes – would have been the first since the ORU Shootout last fall.
The Golden Hurricane have a rich history in golf but are looking for that breakthrough to return to glory. The Conference Challenge might have been it, but after climbing from 13th to seventh in Round 2, and from seventh to the top of the leaderboard in Round 3, it doesn’t seem long until Tulsa is a team garnering national attention once again.
“We stubbed our toe a little bit coming in but have some good, young new players,” head coach Randy Keck said. “We just didn’t finish very well.”
Pepperdine, leaning on the reliable leadership of sophomore Grace Na, was fourth. The Wave won the inaugural Conference Challenge in 2009 at Primm (Nev.) Valley Golf Club. Overnight leader Oregon tied for fifth with Ole Miss.
The Sooners are the first Big 12 school to win the Conference Challenge in the three-year history of the event. The key was course management, particularly in the final stretch.
“Today, it was just the way we finished was huge. I think it was a huge confidence-booster for all the girls with the next couple of tournaments we have coming up in the fall,” Drouin said. The first of those is the Sooners’ own tournament, the Susie Maxwell Berning Classic, which isn’t for nearly a month.
So, for now, it’s time to soak it in.