College Women

Forward spin on women's finals: It's time to evolve

The leaderboard at No. 18 during the third round of the 2014 NCAA Division 1 Women's Golf Championships at Tulsa Country Club.
The leaderboard at No. 18 during the third round of the 2014 NCAA Division 1 Women's Golf Championships at Tulsa Country Club. ( Tracy Wilcox )

Thursday, May 22, 2014

TULSA, Okla. – Fast forward one year and this NCAA Division I Women's Championship, which completed Round 3 today at Tulsa Country Club, will have a much different look. The third round, especially, will present a new vibe.

When the 24 teams arrive next May at The Concession Club in Bradenton, Fla., to compete for the national championship, the tournament will be vastly different than anything previously in women's college golf. Since the first NCAA women’s championship, in 1982, changes have been subtle.

We have seen the field size grow a few spots, to 24 teams, and we have seen the tee sheet change. That’s about it. Near the turn of the century, the leaders played early in the final round, with teams 13 through 24 teeing off late. Now, teams 1-12 play in the afternoon.

Next year the women will follow the men’s format and use match play to determine the national champion for the first time. The men have been using match play since 2009. For the women, the change will be a nod to progress. Their championship will be televised by Golf Channel, just like the men's final.

Match-play proponents thought it would look odd for the women to use stroke play in their championship and then, in the next week, have the men crowning a champion via match play.

To be clear, having the national championship televised will benefit women's college golf. The women have learned a few things from having watched the men in recent years absorb match play into their championship. The women can make format tweaks and have their championship shine.

For example: It might be wise to have teams that have played the best over 36 holes be rewarded with morning tee times on the third day. Pairing the 12 best teams in the morning and the other 12 in the afternoon makes sense.

Other options could be to cut to the low 18 teams after 36 holes and then allowing those 18 to play on the third day in same wave. OK, so we know that isn't likely to happen, but how about having the best 18 teams play in the morning wave and bottom six play in afternoon?

The goal is to create fairness in competition to get to the point at which the real tournament begins.

Sure, it’s no guarantee that the morning is going to be better, but we know the percentages work out that way. This is exactly why regional competition with all teams in the same wave is preferred.

“I understand the concept in golf that leaders go off last. But, this is not the end of the tournament; it’s the middle. You are qualifying and should be rewarded for playing well,” Georgia Tech men’s coach Bruce Heppler said.

For example, look at today in Tulsa: Tulane and North Carolina State posted two of the best four rounds from the morning wave. North Carolina State moved from 13th to inside the top eight, which is what will be needed to qualify for match play next year. Tulane went from 16th to ninth.

“It felt a lot like regionals,” North Carolina State coach Page Marsh said. “You needed to finish in the top eight, and we did that. It was really great to have a feel of what next year will be like."

But, is that fair?

“As long as teams get an extra morning time, it should be the teams that played better for two days,” Heppler said.

Last year at the men’s championship, two teams moved into the top eight and advanced to match play from the morning wave. UNLV posted the best third-round score last year, an 8-under 272, to tie for sixth place, and New Mexico also found a spot on the bracket board with a morning-round tee time.

“Early may not always be the best, but over my 25 years of coaching – and if you talk to anybody they would rather play early than late,” Heppler said.

The men have not changed their format for Round 3 tee times this year. And with the parity continuing to expand in men’s and women’s golf, the format should be reviewed.

The difference from morning to afternoon could be as many as 2-3 shots on average. Multiply that by four counting scores and you are talking about 8-12 shots for a team.

“It’s designed for people to catch up,” Heppler said. readers: We value your input and welcome your comments, but please be respectful in this forum.