Freshman Park leads USC to big lead at NCAAs
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PHOTOS: NCAA Women's Championship (Rd. 2)
Browse images from Round 2 of the Women's NCAA Championship in Athens, GA.
ATHENS, Ga. -– Annie Park arrived for Round 1 of the NCAA Championship with Trojan red chalked into the bottom of her ombre braid, her nails neon orange. Team golf suits the 18-year-old.
Park, noticeable as she may be for these things, sticks out even more during play. She hits it zip codes ahead of her opponents. Most coaches and players name the University of Georgia Golf Course’s length as one of the greatest obstacles this week, but Park can hit every par 5 in two.
Behind Park’s second-round, 5-under 67 on Wednesday, the Trojans climbed to the top of the leaderboard. By the time first-round co-leader San Jose State had teed off, USC had built an eight-shot cushion with a 12-under 276. That’s a new 18-hole national-championship record.
Starting on the back nine, USC was 7 under on its round by the time Park, in the anchor position, made the turn. Credit two of those birdies to Park.
The first-semester freshman from Levittown, N.Y., couldn’t have arrived any earlier for head coach Andrea Gaston. USC was a slim team of five in the fall, and played only three tournaments before the holiday break. Park got eight starts in the spring (which included victories at the Bruin/Wave Invitational, Pac-12 Championship and NCAA West Regional), and is 7 under through 36 holes in Athens, one shot off the individual lead.
“I didn’t necessarily expect this kind of play out of her,” Gaston said. “She’s very patient, very stoic out there.”
Park’s game is off the tee. Upon arriving in Southern California, Park began serious work in the gym. She’s added 10 yards with her irons, and at least that much with her driver.
“I was just trying to improve each aspect of the game,” said Park
Park amounted to a shot in the arm for the Trojans, but there’s hardly a weak part of this roster – the lowest Trojan in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings is No. 54. Park is No. 1.
“I was hoping that I would help the team, it seems like I did,” said Park, “I feel pretty good about that. ... It feels better to win as a team.”
Junior Rachel Morris can remember what it was like on the USC roster this fall, when a bout of flu or an injury could have wiped out the Trojan drop score, or even worse the team score. Morris was one of two young veterans on a team of five. On Wednesday at the University of Georgia Golf Course, “drop score” was a key word. The Trojans let go of a 78 in Round 2, and each of the other four players was under par.
“In the (fall), we pretty much knew that all of our scores were going to count,” said Morris, a junior. “That just helps all of us.”
Morris, with a second-round 70, got to 3 under for the tournament and is tied for fifth with teammate Sophia Popov. “Me personally, I felt like I could have done so much better,” said Morris, but her average this season is her lowest so far at USC.
USC had a 12-shot lead on Alabama by day’s end. That’s helpful halfway through a national championship, but it’s too early to let up. A year ago, eventual champion Alabama had a 15-shot lead with four holes to play in the third round. They ended the day with a 2-shot lead. Advantages can evaporate quickly in women’s college golf, which is why Gaston sent her players into the air conditioning to eat lunch but made it clear that was only a brief respite.
“We’re far from done,” Gaston said. “We have to go right back to work.”
It seems that USC has learned more from what it didn’t have this season than what it did. The Trojans play like every shot counts because, well, it has. That extends past the fall – in fact, back to the closing scene at the 2012 NCAA Championship. USC stood on the sidelines, a very close runner-up to Alabama.
“Last year we were a real slim team, we didn’t have the depth that we have now,” Gaston said.
At the end of the day, USC has a most important intangible: Three of the players know what it’s like to lose by one shot.