Top-ranked Alabama heats up early at NCAA Women's Championship

Todd Bell/Alabama Athletics

Top-ranked Alabama heats up early at NCAA Women's Championship

Women

Top-ranked Alabama heats up early at NCAA Women's Championship

STILLWATER, Okla. – What a difference a year makes.

At last year’s NCAA Women’s Championship, Alabama opened in 40-over 328 at Rich Harvest Farms and sat second to last on the team leaderboard after 18 holes. The Tide entered that week in Sugar Grove, Ill., winners of three of their last five, including regionals, and hadn’t finished worse than T-2 since their spring opener. But a trifecta of brutal conditions – rain, wind and cold temperatures – forced Alabama out of its comfort zone early.

“We got wet and we got cold,” Tide head coach Mic Potter said. “But we also learned a lot.”

With a better state of mind and more mental toughness – thanks in large part to that week – Alabama entered this year’s national championship at Karsten Creek as Golfweek’s No. 1 team. And they performed like it in Friday’s opening round in warm and windy Stillwater.

The Tide shot 4-over 292 and sit one shot behind team leader USC after 18 holes.

“It was about 50 degrees warmer today, so that was good,” junior Cheyenne Knight said, before continuing.

“Nationals is the biggest tournament that we play in college golf, so we put a bigger emphasis on it and it just added a lot of pressure. But it’s just golf. It’s normal to have nerves, but don’t try to do anything outside of your own self. And we need to keep doing what we’ve been doing all fall and spring – go out there, hit fairways and greens, and not try to be someone we’re not.”

Knight missed just two greens Friday as she shot 2-under 70. Her only bogey came on a three-putt, on her 17th hole, the par-4 eighth.

“This course is so mentally demanding and visually intimidating, so I told myself to pick small targets and be fully committed to every shot,” Knight said.

As a team, the Tide struck it well tee to green in Round 1, especially off the tee. Potter calls this squad his best driving team “by far.” And other than two foul balls by junior Lauren Stephenson and sophomore Kristen Gillman on the par-4 16th hole that resulted in double bogeys, Alabama had an impressive back nine – its first nine – making 12 birdies and an eagle.

“This course sets up a lot better for us,” said Stephenson, who shot 74. “We overall hit it pretty straight and have good control of our balls.”

Added Potter: “This course will jump up and grab you. You just have to be patient and not get frustrated and take advantage of your opportunities along the way. … You have to build some equity on the back side starting over there going into the front as the wind got stronger. It could’ve been silly on that side if they both drive it in play.”

Alabama is also nine shots clear of a three-way tie for seventh. (The top 8 teams make match play after 72 holes.) It’s a far cry from a year ago when the team was 14 shots back of eighth after Round 1. Yet there was a silver lining: After Round 2 was cancelled due to inclement weather and the tournament was reduced to 54 holes, the Tide shot the round of the day on Monday, a 1-under 288, to finish T-14 at 64 over, just nine shots back of eighth-place Kent State.

“I think if we would’ve had a fourth day we would’ve made it,” Stephenson said. “It honestly just motivated us to be better and be more prepared because we weren’t prepared for last year. I think we got comfortable being good and we weren’t prepared for the conditions and weren’t prepared as a whole.”

Added Knight: “We showed a lot of grit and perseverance that day. Just our ability to battle back and never give up. We thought we could make match play and coming up short, that plane ride home and watching the national championship, we just want to get to match play and be in that last match.”

In warmer weather and with Alabama starting to heat up early, the plane ride back to Tuscaloosa this time around could be much more enjoyable.

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