WOLCOTT, Colo. – As the final scores were coming in at the Golfweek Conference Challenge, Tulsa was at the top of the leaderboard – the seventh team to hold that position during the final round. Head coach Randy Keck paced in and out of the clubhouse, junior Kristina Merkle sat with her face half-covered and half-watching the leaderboard, and the rest of the team floated around the veranda at Red Sky Golf Club.
Birdies were piling up for Oklahoma, and in the end it was enough to overtake the Golden Hurricane by seven shots. UC Davis fell into place behind the Sooners, and when the leaderboard finally was settled, Tulsa had finished third.
A win wouldn’t have been program-shaping or history-making, but coming out on top of a field featuring 12 top-50 teams would have been special for Tulsa nonetheless. This is a program that has a long, rich history in golf – including NCAA championships in 1982 and 1988, and AIAW championships in 1980 and 1982 – and is inching closer to restoring its tradition of success.
“I think the most important part of what it did was to make this group understand that they’re good enough to win. … As far as changing the program, Dale McNamara changed the program. I’m just trying to keep the legacy alive,” Keck said of the first coach in Tulsa program history.
Keck runs a team that’s always smiling, always laughing and frequently beating on a “birdie monkey” that hangs off his golf cart during tournaments. He’s a coach who gets it when it comes to loving the game, but he also has assembled a team that he maintains has the talent to win a national championship. They just need to deliver.
“We’ve got a really good team from a ball-striking standpoint, from a team-chemistry standpoint,” Keck said. “We’ve just got to put it all together, and we just haven’t yet.”
At the forefront of that team is Merkle, who has a combination of talent and off-course personality that makes Keck drop his voice a notch when he says, “She’s a little special.”
Merkle’s scorecard endured a blow in Round 1 when she took a 9 on the par-4 14th. She ended with a 79 as Tulsa landed in 13th for the day, but followed with Rounds of 70 and 71 to lead Tulsa to seventh, then briefly to the top of the leaderboard in the final round.
“I think what really got us going was that second round,” Merkle said. “Just to know that, OK, we can play this course; we’ve got this. I think that’s what really just started it off for all of us.”
The biggest key in the second round was a gusting wind that left the field scoring average at 79.94, the highest of the tournament. Tulsa wasn’t minding it a bit, and a final-round wind might have even shifted things a little more in its favor.
Excelling in tough weather and coming from behind for a near-victory are signs of character, and that’s something the Golden Hurricane don’t lack. It’s a good compliment to Tulsa’s talent, and reason to heed Keck’s warning that Tulsa has the game to contend on a much bigger level.
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Best in the business
Five college coaches recently were selected for LPGA Teaching and Club Professional Coach of the Year awards. The LPGA T&CP annually selects award winners for Teacher, Professional and Coach of the Year for each of its five sections, and soon will announce the overall national award winner in each category from among the section award-winners.
• Western Section
Dana Dormann, San Jose State, San Jose, Calif.
• Central Section
Lindsay Hulwick, University of Denver, Denver, Colo.
• Midwest Section
Alexis Mihelich, Southern Illinois, Carbondale, Ill.
• Northeast Section
Kim Lewellen, Virginia, Charlottesville, Va.
• Southeast Section
Laura Brown, Daytona State College, Daytona Beach, Fla.
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A look ahead:
• What: Mason Rudolph Fall Preview
• When: Sept. 23-25
• Where: Vanderbilt Legends Club, Franklin, Tenn.
• Why it’s important: The marquee event of the fall. All of Golfweek’s preseason top 10 teams are in attendance, getting a look at the site of the NCAA Championship for this spring. It’s the first fall outing for the highly touted, deep rosters out of UCLA and USC. Cal, Arizona and Arizona State also made the trek from Pac-12 country. From the East Coast, keep an eye on LSU, winner of last week’s season-opening Cougar Classic.
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Five questions with . . .
Oklahoma sophomore Chirapat Jao-Javanil, who shot 1-over 217 (70-75-72) to win the Golfweek Conference Challenge:
1. What do you think is the toughest hole at Red Sky?
Probably 13 because the greens are really slopey, but I kind of tired to hit it on the low side so then I have an uphill putt.
2. What’s the most interesting thing you did in the Vail Valley during the tournament?
I’ve been in Thailand for all of my life and I’ve just been in the U.S. and this is my first time in Colorado and being high up in the air so the view is spectacular. It’s just like enjoying. Just being at the course and hitting at elevation because Oklahoma is a bit flat.
3. The team also won, after it came down to the wire right at the end.
We’re just really proud of each other because we all try to support each other. We weren’t in the best position after the second round, so it felt really good that our team is really supportive. We just hang in there and stay positive.
4. You made up two shots to win the individual title in the final round. Where did you feel like the momentum shifted in your favor?
Actually, my last two holes, I think. It was kind of going slow the whole day. I made a couple birdies and bogeys here and there, but I birdied my last two holes, and I guess that swung the whole score around.
5. This is your first collegiate win, and you’re only a sophomore. How does it feel?
It’s actually a bit overwhelming right now. It’s very exciting and it’s my first collegiate win, so it feels really good. I’m just happy my teammates and my coaches are here, too.