My year in golf: Julie Williams
Saturday, December 29, 2012
Editor's note: For our entire "My Year in Golf" series, click here.
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The No. 1 criticism I hear about our sport is that it can lack excitement – golf moves too slow and takes too long to play. My fourth year covering it at the women’s amateur and college level was nothing like that. And if there was a theme to the year, it was that match play lends a totally different feel to competitive golf.
I had never seen links golf in the flesh until traveling to Nairn, Scotland for the Curtis Cup in June. Early week, the eight U.S. team members, all current college players, told me how much of an adjustment they were having to make to links golf. Just from following them around Nairn Golf Club, I could tell the howling, bone-chilling north wind was going to be a major factor. The pot bunkers and gorse were downright frightening.
As an aside, I had the chance to escape mid-week with my colleague Alistair Tait, and fit in a quick (a very quick) round at Royal Dornoch, just down the road. I knew it was going to be tough when Alistair and I halved the second hole with 7s. It was a par 3. One of us hit a nearby house on that hole, the other found knee-high weeds repeatedly. It’s the only time in my life I truly felt the golf course was battling back. Lesson learned: the home-course advantage was huge that week.
For the first time in 16 years, the Americans did not take home the Curtis Cup at the end of the week. Sunday singles was the most memorable day of live golf I watched this year. The patriotism was palpable, and the pressure was huge. I had no idea which team was going to win until the last putt in the final match dropped.
The next time I watched a match-play event was at the U.S. Girls’ Junior at Lake Merced Golf Club in Daly City, Calif. I was so preoccupied with the idea that the top two amateurs in the world (Lydia Ko and Ariya Jutanugarn) could meet in the final at the end of the week that I almost overlooked what turned out to be the best match: Jutanugarn vs. Casie Cathrea in the quarterfinals.
Cathrea was playing on home turf that week (she lives about an hour away, in Livermore, Calif.), and she’s already one of the most spirited and competitive players in junior golf. Jutanugarn is equally competitive, if not quite so outgoing in her personality. Both play the game extremely aggressively.
What followed was a match that included 12 birdies in 17 holes and such a fast pace that following on my own two feet provided all the cardio I would need that day. It got to the point where if Jutanugarn or Cathrea didn’t birdie a hole, she could just about count on losing it. I’ve never seen a match that intense, on any level, and I felt breathless right down to the 40-foot birdie putt Jutanugarn made to win the 16th after Cathrea had nearly dunked her approach shot from the right rough. Jutanugarn’s putt visibly took the wind out of Cathrea’s sails, and she lost on the next green. The match took a mere three hours to play.
As for Ko and Jutanugarn, they did meet a few weeks later, at the U.S. Women’s Amateur. It wasn’t nearly as explosive as Cathrea vs. Jutanugarn, but the match lived up to the hype. Ko took down Jutanugarn, 3 and 1, in the semifinals and went on to win the trophy. Not long after, the 15-year-old won an LPGA event, but I wasn’t there to see it.
In between these tournaments I got to watch the AJGA Wyndham Cup for the first time. It’s a three-day team match-play event that pits the top 40 juniors from the East against those from the West. I’ll never forget watching that event come to a nerve-racking close at Bay Hill’s 18th green. Juniors Cody Proveaux (East) and Brad Dalke (West) faced putts there that meant the whole match, and when Proveaux made his, mayhem broke out. Watching 19 screaming teenagers rush that green was like nothing I’ve seen before. It gave me chills and a chuckle at the same time, but it was something I wish a bigger crowd had been able to witness.
Golf on my beat this year was fast-paced and unpredictable, and I hope that trend continues in 2013 and beyond. It also left me with a new perspective on match play, which makes me want to leave you with one parting thought.
I spent the month leading up to the college season polling the head coaches of each of the 255 schools in our Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings to find out how serious this group was about adding match play to the Women’s NCAA Championship. It was all I thought about for the better part of a month, and I had more than a couple of one-on-one conversations with coaches about it.
When I tallied all the votes, I found only 23 percent of those who responded (203 coaches) were in favor, mostly because players don't get experience playing it through the regular season. That could change, however, and I hope it’s something that gets more attention in the next few years. As one coach put it, “Tradition is not necessarily the only thing to make something good.”
I don’t disagree. It’s why I entered the offseason no longer straddling the fence on adding match play at the college level. Based on what I saw this year, in my opinion, it’s in the best interest of the game.