Alabama leads after Virginia's luck runs out
FRANKLIN, Tenn. – Shortly after 7:30 a.m. Tuesday, only one Virginia player was on the course. Still, her teammate turned to head coach Kim Lewellen and delivered this line: “Hey, Coach, right now we’re leading the NCAA Championship.”
Women's NCAA Championship: Round 1
Check out images from Legends Golf Club, the site of the 2012 NCAA Women's Championship.
Women's NCAA Championship: Practice round
View images of the 2012 NCAA Division I Women's Golf Championship during Tuesday's practice.
That conversation took place only after the voice of Virginia parent Rocket Rosen split the early-morning air with news that his daughter Portland's second shot at the par-4 first hole had found the bottom of the cup. Rocket’s known for his sense of humor, so Portland didn’t immediately believe him. But Rocket wasn’t crying wolf, and that’s how Virginia took an immediate lead at the national championship. Portland, a Cavaliers sophomore, had knocked in a 5-iron for an eagle at the Legends Club’s 384-yard starting hole.
Portland ended the morning with a 66, and when rounds of 71 came in from Brittany Altomare and Elizabeth Brightwell, Virginia sat atop the team leaderboard with a 6-under 282 that would have been a school record. Teams in the afternoon waves were beginning to tee off, but no team was as hot as Virginia.
The elation, however, was short-lived for the Cavaliers when Brightwell discovered she had signed an incorrect scorecard. She had made a bogey at the par-4 fourth hole but signed for a par there instead. The mistake meant she was disqualified for the round, and the Cavaliers had to count a 77 from Briana Mao instead.
“I feel bad for Elizabeth and bad for the team,” Lewellen said. “We just have to go out there and keep playing.”
Virginia hovered near the top of the leaderboard until Alabama counted six birdies at Nos. 7-9, their final three holes of the day. They finished at 2-under 286, enough to overtake the Cavaliers by two shots. In Mic Potter’s mind, the first round of the NCAA Championship is about position, not score. Still, that doesn’t make what happened to Brightwell any less frightening.
“As a coach, it just scares me to death when they walk out of that tent,” he said.
Potter has been around long enough to know that the NCAA Championship can’t be won in the first round. As the saying goes, it can be lost. That lesson is still fresh in Potter’s mind from last year, when Alabama entered the tournament as a favorite, only to shoot 13-over 301 in the first round and drop from contention immediately. The Crimson Tide never could climb out of that hole. This year, that’s not an issue. In fact, the only hump the Tide has to get over this week is how to finish on the back nine rather than the more scorable front.
“It’s all about position right now,” he said.
Potter’s players are familiar with the Legends Club layout, and he says they benefited greatly from a recent trip to Old Waverly Golf Club in West Point, Miss. The greens there are fast and firm, just like the new Bermudagrass putting surfaces in Franklin. Potter has preached that it’s often better to be chipping from the front of green than have a gagger putt from the back.
Alabama got a boost from Brooke Pancake’s 68 and Stephanie Meadow’s 67. Rosen remains the individual leader as Purdue’s Laura Gonzalez also fell short of catching the Virginia player. Gonzalez failed to birdie Nos. 7 or 9, and is right behind Rosen with a 5-under 67.
Team heartache aside, Virginia can take pride in Rosen, who made the turn with a 29 on her card and got to 66 with a final birdie at No. 18 that caused Rocket, otherwise known as the man on the sidelines wearing the “Poopie’s Groupies” hat, to pump his fist in celebration and shout again.
“I now believe what everyone says when they talk about a trance,” Rosen said during a post-round interview in which she covered every topic from horse-racing (her family raises thoroughbreds) to softball (her three sisters chose that sport instead of golf) to that seemingly unfortunate nickname: Poopie.
She earned that one from a childhood obsession with Winnie the Pooh, and the subsequent mastery of “the Pooh voice.” Boyfriend Jared Kerr, also a Virginia sophomore, went with another interpretation. He, too, was on the sidelines cheering for Rosen in a Groupies hat.
“Her dad got me this,” he explained of the attire.
Rosen’s 66 ties a career low for the Sugar Land, Texas, native. She last shot the score in high school, but she says that hardly compares with college golf. It’s the lowest round by a Virginia player in the NCAA Championship, and is only one shot shy of the Legends Club course record.
For a player ranked No. 232 in Golfweek’s rankings and with a 268-409 won-loss head-to-head record on the season, Rosen couldn't have produced a career round at a better time. She switched to a long putter a week ago, after finishing 101st at the NCAA Central Regional with rounds of 84-76-84. She calls it Batman, which is a nickname given by Lewellen because, well, the putter just looked like a Batman.
A year ago, when the NCAA Championship was in Rosen’s home state and at one of her favorite courses, Bryan National Golf Club at Texas A&M, Rosen finished 102nd (25-over 313). She put way too much pressure on herself for that tournament. Despite a little restlessness Monday night, Rosen is far more relaxed this year - and looking for redemption.
“I loved being the first off at 7:30,” she said.
Virginia has a secret weapon in stand-in assistant coach Calle Nielson, a native of nearby Nashville and 2011 Virginia graduate. This week, she is filling the shoes of assistant coach Brian Bailie, who remains home with 10-year-old daughter Cassidy, who suffers from the movement disorder dystonia. Cassidy has been confined to a wheelchair since she was 18 months old, and she has been in and out of surgery for the past month.
With the Bailie family on their minds, Virginia players pulled out their Sharpies this week to emblazon CB on their golf balls. Talk of it moved Lewellen to tears.
It seems this week, Virginia’s story will be one of adversity. This tightly knit squad has the heart to overcome it.