Duke women hold six-shot lead over USC at NCAAs

Duke head coach Dan Brooks finishes a team meeting after Round 3 of the 2014 NCAA Division 1 Women's Golf Championships at Tulsa Country Club. Duke has a six-shot lead heading into the final round on Friday.

Women's Rankings »

RankNameSchoolRating
1SooBin KimWashington  68.13 
2Alison LeeUCLA  69.06 
3Leona MaguireDuke  69.52 
4Nanna MadsenS Carolina  69.75 
5Dana FinkelsteinUNLV  69.83 

Women's Team Rankings »

RankNameRatingEvents
1Washington 70.58 
2South Carolina 70.87 
3UCLA 71.23 
4Duke 71.35 
5Stanford 71.38 

TULSA, Okla. – For a defending national champion, what a difference a year will make. USC was nearly ready to break out the confetti this time last year, but a hard day of work awaits the Trojans if that’s going to happen again.

“We were almost thinking about our post-tournament celebration before we had even played the final round,” senior Sophia Popov said of that day last year in Athens, Ga., when USC had a 17-shot lead on its way to a third national title.

On a hot Thursday at Tulsa Country Club, that seemed eons ago. There have been nine regular-season tournament victories since, and weeks spent atop Golfweek's rankings. Still, USC had to claw its way to the top of the leaderboard in Round 3, and Popov, first to tee off for the team, knew she needed to lead that charge – especially after back-to-back 79s. She shaved nine shots Thursday, and contributed an even-par 70 as USC posted 2-under 278.

Duke, runner-up to USC a year ago by 21 shots, matched that score for a six-shot advantage to start the final round. It would be Duke’s sixth national championship, and for head coach Dan Brooks, a repeat, of sorts. Brooks coached his Blue Devils to the 1999 NCAA title at Tulsa Country Club, before Rees Jones did a series of renovations on the 1920s A.W. Tillinghast design.

“We have to get after it tomorrow,” Brooks said. Duke, however, has had the advantage all week. Led by sophomore Celine Boutier’s 3-under 67, the Blue Devils rose from second to first in Round 3. Boutier, 3 under for the tournament, is tied for the individual lead.

USC shaved 14 shots from the second round, and part of that was due to calmer conditions. Part was due to more forgiving pin placements and part was due to better course management. USC hadn’t fared well on the par-3 sixth, with water right and bunkers left, but counted only one double bogey in the third round.

“The conditions certainly were a lot better than the first couple days, and there always was a possibility that we could score,” USC head coach Andrea Gaston said. “The back nine produced a lot of birdies, and I think that was the difference.”

USC also has a contender in the individual fight. Junior Doris Chen led the Trojans with a 2-under 68 that moved her to 3 under for the tournament, tied with Boutier.

At the other end of the lineup, Karen Chung posted USC’s fourth score, a 3-over 73. Chung is the only addition to last year’s national championship-winning team, and has produced a counting score for the Trojans during each round in Tulsa.

The freshman hit the course in Round 1 with an abundance of spirit – she wore everything from Trojans knee socks to ribbons tied around her wrist. The latter raised a brief question with rules officials after the second round when pictures posted from the championship showed that a piece of that ribbon had made its way into Chung’s grip on a windy afternoon.

“Under the rules, there’s a concern about some artificial devices and unusual equipment that would assist you in gripping a club and making a stroke,” said NCAA head rules official Jerry Lemieux, referencing Rule 14-3 ("Artificial Devices, Unusual Equipment and Unusual Use of Equipment"). “When it was brought to our attention, we were under the obligation to investigate it.”

After the second round, officials consulted Gaston and Chung, reviewed high-resolution pictures on site and also submitted them to the U.S. Golf Association’s equipment standards department. Lemieux said it took about 20 minutes to determine that the ribbon did not assist Chung in her grip or play, and that her intent in wearing it was purely decorative.

If Chung’s score had been thrown out in Round 1, USC would have entered the final round trailing by 11 shots instead of six.

A year before the women’s national championship is slated for TV time on Golf Channel, in high-definition, it got a taste of the rules questions presented by bystanders in televised tour events. It’s one way in which the women’s game could change in the next year. The more obvious change awaiting the women, however, is the addition of match play. That suddenly puts more teams in the mix for a national championship.

After two rounds in Tulsa, that looked likely to happen earlier than expected. Oklahoma, a program that has surged in the past three years, led by three shots. The Sooners dropped 13 shots to Duke and USC in the third round, however, and now trail by 10.

“This is the first time we’ve been in the hunt for nationals, but for us, it’s just another tournament,” head coach Veronique Drouin-Luttrell said.

Most of Oklahoma’s recent success has come from a core of four seniors, including 2012 NCAA individual champion Chirapat Jao-Javanil. Lone freshman Alexandra Kaui had posted opening rounds of 68-67, and she teed off Thursday with a three-shot individual lead. Triple bogeys on Nos. 3 and 6 quickly derailed that train, but Kaui putted out for birdie on No. 18 – which gave her an 80 – with a smile.

“She’s kind of like a little sister, so we all kind of consoled her,” senior Kaitlyn Rohrback said. “... She needs to know that’s not her game; she’s better than that.”

That Mississippi State is fifth on the leaderboard, trailing Duke by 14 shots, is perhaps more notable. The Bulldogs, ranked No. 24, had never been to the national championship before 2013, and finished last.

Head coach Ginger Brown-Lemm’s team was eighth after Round 2. In writing out positive notes to boost her team’s spirits for Round 3, she happened to hear a Van Halen song in the background. The refrain of “right now” stuck, and it was infectious for the Bulldogs. Early in the day, Mississippi State was tied for second. A 3-over 283 was the Bulldogs' best score yet.

“Everybody puts their pants on just like you,” Brown-Lemm said post-round in her thick Mississippi accent. “So at the end of the day, isn’t it about who’s best that day? Who’s best that four days? So why not us?”

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