Each year when the postseason rolls around, I hear this phrase: Not just any team can win a national championship. That’s true, considering it takes talent and depth to put together four consecutive team scores under the most pressure of the season.
But in two of the past three national championships – all I’ve covered in my career at Golfweek – a program has claimed its first-ever national title. This fall, Washington, a team I didn’t even include in my preseason top 30, took hold of Golfweek’s top ranking without appearing to break a sweat. The pressure to win became palpable, and not just on the top tier. The year ended with a 20-year-old fresh from the LSU roster easily earning her LPGA card. If there was a theme to women’s college golf in 2012, it was that it’s becoming less and less predictable, which is great for the game. For proof, see No. 10 below:
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10. University budgets make room for women’s golf
It’s fitting that during a year when the historic Title IX legislation, which leveled the playing field for female athletes, celebrated its 40th anniversary, three universities announced the addition of women’s golf teams. Fall 2013 marks the start date for new programs at the University of Houston and Clemson. (The addition of a Clemson women’s golf team was announced in summer 2011.)
Navy also announced this year that it would elevate its team to a full varsity sport, and that it will begin competing at the Patriot League Championship this spring. Central Michigan will restore its women’s golf program in fall 2014 after more than a 30-year hiatus.
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9. The coaching carousel spins out of control
The close of this spring’s NCAA Championship was peppered with news of coaches circulating among some of the top programs in the country, and not by choice. Days after the championship closed, Georgia coach Kelly Hester’s contract was not renewed and Stanford coach Caroline O’Connor was forced to resign. Hester found a new gig at Furman, but O’Connor, after 17 seasons with the Cardinal, did not return to coaching. It’s nothing new for summers to be filled with news of resignations, new hires and job changes, but 2012 brought a new feeling: an urgency to win, or else.
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8. Austin Ernst trades her books for an LPGA card
Back in 2011, Ernst made it big at LSU when she went from unknown freshman to NCAA champion. Her sophomore year wasn’t nearly as explosive, even though her Tigers fell just three shots short of the national title in May. News that Ernst was leaving LSU and head coach Karen Bahnsen came as a shock in July, since Ernst had, for two years, bled purple and gold. Ernst still does, but after months of working with dad and swing coach Mark back home in Seneca, S.C., she skated through LPGA Q-School to earn professional playing priveleges. The college game, not to mention LSU, could have benefited from two more years of Ernst, but so far, it’s hard to argue that she made the wrong decision.
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7. Virginia’s wild ride at the NCAA Championship:
Day 1 at the Legends Club in Franklin, Tenn., was an emotional rollercoaster for the Cavaliers. In the first group off No. 1 tee, No. 5 player Portland Rosen holed out from the fairway for eagle, then followed with five birdies on the front nine. She was in the clubhouse with 6-under 66 before anyone had really registered that the championship had started. Later in the afternoon, heartbreak hit when teammate Elizabeth Brightwell realized she had signed for an incorrect score. That resulted in Brightwell’s disqualification, the addition of six strokes to the team score and an eventual four-shot loss by Virginia. Still, kudos to the Cavaliers for keeping their heads and remaining in contention. It’s the type of thing that would have derailed many teams.
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6. College golf’s new princess
College golf fans and media members alike spent the early part of the week at the national championship stumbling over the pronunciation of eventual champion Chirapat Jao-Javanil’s name. Like the Oklahoma sophomore’s teammates, everyone soon began to call her only “Ja.” On Twitter, the Thai sensation goes by @princess_ja.
Relatively unknown until May, despite two regular-season victories, Ja emerged as one cool customer that week on her way to a four-shot victory and the first NCAA individual title in Oklahoma history. She returned in the fall to lead the Sooners to a record-breaking season and a No. 2 ranking by Golfweek. Royal achievements, indeed.
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5. Surprise defeat of the Curtis Cup college dream team:
With a squad of eight current college players – including two former USGA champions, a former NCAA individual champion, the college player of the year and four first-team All-Americans – the Americans seemed a lock to take home an eighth consecutive Curtis Cup. In fact, no one saw a loss coming until it was right on top of them. GB&I points were piling up on the scoreboard and holes were running out in the remaining matches. American players were left speechless at the end of a cold week in Nairn, Scotland, and perhaps captain Pat Cornett said it best: “GB&I just played better.”
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4. USC excels again and again with fearsome fivesome:
Five players in crimson and gold stood to the side of the 18th green at the conclusion of the NCAA Championship with silent tears. A national title would have been an unbelievable cap to the Trojans’ spring season, the better part of which was played with a lean roster of five. That runner-up title, USC was only one shot shy of Alabama, followed a 25-shot routing at the NCAA Central Regional two weeks prior. The team capped the fall with a victory in a loaded 17-team field at the Stanford Collegiate, winning the team title on the shoulders of freshman Kyung Kim and her individual victory. It seems that as long as Andrea Gaston has the requisite four bodies to post a team score, anything can happen.
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3. Lindy Duncan rules the spring; Kim Kaufman owns the fall:
Lindy Duncan’s stat column from her junior season was impressive, to say the least. With four victories in 10 starts and not one finish outside the top 8, she was the model of consistency. It led to Player of the Year honors.
Duncan returned for her senior season as this magazine’s top-ranked player, only to be overtaken by Texas Tech’s Kimberly Kaufman. Kaufman may be the second most famous female college golfer to call a Dakota home (after North Dakota State’s Amy Anderson). Kaufman, a senior from Clark, S.D., has been building up to a season like this, and frankly she has the talent to have hit the spotlight much sooner. Leading up to her senior season, Kaufman advanced to the semifinals at the U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links, finished third at the Canadian Women’s Amateur and defended her title at the South Dakota Women’s Amateur. She won her first college title at the Hurricane Sandy-shortened Landfall Tradition. Fittingly, the girl from up north shot 5-under 67 in increasingly foul conditions.
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2. Alabama takes its place at the top of the game:
One could argue that the Crimson Tide’s national championship title has been a long time coming. Trace it back to the hiring of Mic Potter seven years earlier, after a Hall-of-Fame career at Furman. After a final-round rally in 2010 that wasn’t quite enough and a first-round explosion in 2011 that left too much ground to make up, a deep Alabama team got it right in 2012, holding it together down the stretch at the Legends Club to finish one shot ahead of USC. Senior All-American Brooke Pancake led the charge, and ended it by tapping in a par putt at the 18th green. That team also included Stephanie Meadow and Jennifer Kirby, and back-up in Hannah Collier and Courtney McKim.
Said Pancake in the mayhem that followed on the 18th green, “(Potter) has had such a career, and he needed a national championship under his belt.”
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1. Washington is the new No. 1:
Washington won twice and finished second twice during a season in which the team built a 58-2 head-to-head ranking. The Huskies lost only to Arizona (at the Windy City Collegiate) and USC (at the Stanford Intercollegiate).
Washington has made big strides since failing to earn a spot in last spring’s NCAA Championship. The team wasn’t ranked among this magazine’s top 30 preseason teams, but emerged as one of the most competitive rosters in the country.
“They are very close,” said head coach Mary Lou Mulflur. “They are very competitive, but in a good way. . . . They want to kick your butt, but then they’ll go out and have dinner.”