Bolstered by foul-weather grit, Kent State and Ohio State keep NCAA dreams alive

Kent State Athletics

Bolstered by foul-weather grit, Kent State and Ohio State keep NCAA dreams alive

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Bolstered by foul-weather grit, Kent State and Ohio State keep NCAA dreams alive

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SUGAR GROVE, Ill. – Therese Hession threw her right fist down toward the 18th green as a final birdie putt dropped to put the exclamation point on the Buckeyes’ banner day.

Roughly an hour later, Kent State coach Greg Robertson stood off to the side of the 18th green as Michaela Finn faced a 4 1/2 foot par putt to give the Golden Flashes the eighth and final spot in the match-play portion of the NCAA Championship.

When Finn’s putt fell, Robertson dropped with it, crouching down with a flurry of fist-pumps as he looked over with a big smile toward the rest of his team.

Two Ohio-based teams, well-versed in brutal weather and tough tracks, made history at Rich Harvest Farms, qualifying for match play for the first time in school history.

“I just told the team I believe in them,” said Hession. “They’re as good as any team out there.”

Hession’s Buckeyes will face Southern California in the quarterfinals of match play on Tuesday while Kent State squares off against top-seeded Northwestern. Kent State ranks 16th in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings, the same ranking Stanford had when the Cardinal won in 2015. Last year’s victorious Washington squad was No. 13.

“We got it done,” said Robertson, “and now it’s a brand new game.”

As soon as Ohio State advanced out of the regional held at OSU’s Scarlet Course, Hession called former Buckeye Meg Mallon for advice on playing Rich Harvest Farms. Mallon was vice captain to Beth Daniel at the 2009 Solheim Cup held on Jerry Rich’s track.

As soon as Hession got off the phone, she prepared a “Meg Mallon practice sheet.”

“It was really hard,” said Hession. “I know the girls probably hated me, but it was really good preparation.”

Buckeye players spent time working on hitting into certain sections of the fairway off the tee to maximize angles. They worked on punch shots under limbs (because trees are in the fairway here) and the pace of their putts. Mallon told them never to go over a back pin.

“On this course you can make big numbers if you think you can try and take it on,” said Mallon, who will be inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in September. “Every hole gives you a bit of a bailout around the greens if say, you have a downhill lie or are in the rough.”

Hession beamed when Mallon told her Rich Harvest Farms puts a premium on course management because the veteran coach considers that one of her strengths.

She also grinned when she saw the weather forecast. Hession considered Friday’s opening round among the top 3 worst weather days in her 26 years of coaching. The Buckeyes capitalized.

Ohio State didn’t win a tournament this year outside of a dual match against Florida Atlantic. Still, Hession knew what was possible if they could advance through regionals on their home turf. The Buckeyes hone their games on a course where pars are a good score. They were prepared for a test.

“A lot of times our schedule and the time of year we play it, it doesn’t look so good,” said Hession. “But that’s all about building lessons and learning for a moment like this.”

Kent State on the other hand, had four victories this year, never finishing worse than sixth. They had five individual wins and advanced to the national championship for the first time since 2010.

Since Robertson took the helm at Kent State in 2013, the Golden Flashes’ team scoring average has dropped 8.98 strokes. Senior Wad Phaewchimplee, a Robertson recruit, set a new single-season scoring record as a junior to become Kent State’s new career scoring leader.

Phaewchimplee is the only senior in Robertson’s lineup at Rich Harvest Farms. Two freshmen and a pair of sophomore round out his fivesome.

Robertson, an Oklahoma State grad, came to Kent State from Purdue, where he thrived as an associate coach under Devon Brouse.

During the final round of stroke play, the head coach walked with Finn. He could only watch live scoring with dismay as he saw their cushy lead come disappear fast when Karoline Stormo posted a quadruple-bogey eight on the 17th hole and Pimnipa Panthong made double on the same hole.

Finn didn’t fare much better. She got too cute with a flop shot on the penultimate hole and made a double of her own.

With North Carolina warming up on the range, the Swede arrived on the 54th hole needing par to keep her team out of the playoff. Not that she had any idea.

“I didn’t tell her,” said Robertson. “What’s she gonna do? Try harder?”

With the wind howling, Finn found the greenside bunker on her approach from 167 yards. She felt the tension in the air as she got toward the green, but didn’t know specifics.

Finn stuck her shot from the bunker inside 5 feet and converted the par putt like there was nothing to it. Finn said it was the first putt she’d made outside 3 feet all day.

“I knew it was important,” she said, “but not that important.”

Turned out, it was everything.

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