USC opens up commanding 17-shot lead at NCAAs
PHOTOS: NCAA Women's Championship (Rd. 3)
Images from Round 3 of the Women's NCAA Championship. USC Trojans have a 17-shot lead heading into the final round.
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ATHENS, Ga. – When a team builds a 17-shot lead through 54 holes of the NCAA Championship, the record books start opening. USC is nearly out of the sight of the rest of the field, but there still are 18 holes to play. The message on Thursday? Stranger things have happened.
In 17 years leading at USC, head coach Andrea Gaston has never coached a team to such a distant third-round lead. Gaston left the course “in awe,” of her team’s consistency.
“You can sleep a little better at night,” Gaston said Thursday. .
Duke head coach Dan Brooks can remember coaching his team out of a 23-shot deficit years ago during the final round of the Mercedes-Benz, a regular-season tournament hosted by Tennessee. The Blue Devils beat Tulsa by 12. In 1986, Wake Forest staged a 19-shot swing on the back nine of the NCAA Men’s Championship to finish two shots ahead of third-round leader Oklahoma State.
“It would be really amazing for something like that to happen when USC is on the golf course with us,” Brooks said. He taught his team an important word in Round 3: unflappable.
After Duke, the next closest teams – Purdue, Alabama and UCLA – trail the Trojans by 28 shots. The Blue Devils have the best chance at making a run on USC, but Brooks stressed the importance of avoiding the urge to press.
“The only way we’re going to win this is if some putts fall,” Brooks said.
USC shot 3-under 285 on Thursday to get to 19 under for the championship. The Trojans were 5 over after the more difficult front nine, but stormed into the clubhouse. Freshman Kyung Kim’s 3-under 69 was the team’s lowest round of the day.
The Trojans have a most unusual post-round routine. Each player trudged off the course on Thursday to a cooler on Gaston’s cart and plucked a tiny carton of chocolate milk. It’s the best thing for muscle recovery, Kim explained, even if it doesn’t seem the most thirst-quenching in the heavy Athens air. USC will need something to keep its legs through 72 holes. It’s the longest tournament of the year.
“I wouldn’t say we’re comfortable yet,” Kim said, holding her empty half-empty carton.
At this point in the week, talk of USC’s one-shot national-championship loss last year is like beating a dead horse. Three members of that team learned the lesson first hand, and the rest heard about it. Sophia Popov, one of two juniors on the team, addresses it and moves on. This year’s theme is more about trusting teammates than seeking revenge.
“It’s a really good feeling going into a round knowing your team has your back,” Popov said.
A lot of that is thanks to first-semester freshman Annie Park, who is leading the individual race at 8 under. Park shot 70 on Thursday, a round that included a hard-fought bogey at the par-5 12th, where Park famously went for the green with a 7-iron on her second shot. A tail wind let up just as she struck that ball, leaving her in a hazard short. It still was the shot heard ‘round the golf course on Thursday.
Park birdied her next two holes, birdied again at the par-5 17th, where her chip shot bounced off the flag-stick, and made her final birdie at the par-5 18th. It contributed to USC’s back-nine turnaround.
“I didn’t think that 5 over was going to turn into 3 under,” Gaston said of the team score.
Not long after Park left the 18th green, the team circled around their bags for a quick picture. Under the name sewn into the front of each player’s bag is an oval-shaped patch with the word Gorms. That’s in honor of volunteer assistant Jim Gormley, the head pro at Palos Verdes Golf Club back home.
Gormley, who works many a current and former Trojan, recently was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma, and underwent his first session of chemotherapy on Tuesday.
“He would have been here,” Gaston said.
A national-championship trophy would go a long way in lifting his spirits.