Arkansas, Maria Fassi hope to break out of funk after rough 36 holes at NCAAs

Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

Arkansas, Maria Fassi hope to break out of funk after rough 36 holes at NCAAs

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Arkansas, Maria Fassi hope to break out of funk after rough 36 holes at NCAAs

STILLWATER, Okla. – Maria Fassi showed why she’s the ANNIKA Award favorite on her final hole Saturday.

The Arkansas junior roasted a driver at the 482-yard closing par 5 at Karsten Creek Golf Club, at least 40 yards past her opponents. With just a 9-iron in from 155 yards, Fassi took it right at the back pin and left her ball 10 feet from the hole for eagle.

But there was a glimpse of what was amiss right after. Fassi would end up with a closing birdie, but ran her first putt 4 feet by and rammed in her comeback putt with considerable speed.

Her closing birdie only salvaged a 6-over 78 – better than her opening 81 but still leaving her tied for 116th at 15 over. This is from a player who has won four times in her last six events and hasn’t placed worse than T-12 all season.

“I feel weird internally. It hasn’t been the same as it was going the whole semester,” Fassi said. “Coach said it yesterday, ‘Yeah, you don’t look like yourself.’ So there’s something going on that I’m still working on figuring out what it is.”

She’s not alone, and that’s unfortunate for the Razorbacks. Second-ranked Arkansas has been in a funk for 36 holes, firing rounds of 20-over 308 and 12-over 300 to find itself in a tie for 21st after the morning wave of Round 2 at the NCAA Championship.

In an historic season – one in which the Razorbacks, one of the pre-tournament favorites at NCAAs, have won seven times, including their first SEC title in program history – Arkansas surprisingly finds itself on the outside of making it past the 54-hole top-15 cut.

There weren’t any signs of this. The Razorbacks won their last two events, and Shauna Estes-Taylor, Arkansas’ head coach, said this week’s practice round went smoothly.

But the Razorbacks have struggled to move on from and minimize mistakes at Karsten Creek, and they’ve paid the price.

“This golf course demands good presence and patience every golf shot,” Estes-Taylor said. “We definitely struggled. We’ve gotten off to some bad starts, I think gotten a little impatient.”

Fassi isn’t exactly sure why it’s happening, but she can pinpoint her struggles over the opening 36 down to one thing: Putting.

The Mexico native is known for her length, and Estes-Taylor points to Fassi’s flatstick as her biggest strength in a season that has seen the junior win six times and sit No. 1 in the Golfweek/Sagarin rankings heading into nationals.

Maria Fassi receives the trophy from Annika Sorenstam after winning the 2017 ANNIKA Intercollegiate Presented by 3M. (Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports)

But her putting’s gone haywire this week.

Fassi estimates she’s three-putted 12 times in 36 holes, an alarming number that made her point out she maybe hasn’t had that many three-putts all season.

When’s the last time she can remember three-putting at this frequency?

“Maybe when I was like 5,” she joked.

Fassi says she’s felt uncomfortable over the ball on the greens in Stillwater. She’s putted wonderfully all spring and hasn’t made any changes ahead of the NCAA Championship, but this week feelings of doubt have crept in when she’s prepared to putt.

It’s an anomaly Fassi can’t quite put her finger on.

“I don’t know if it’s the grass, if it’s the speed, if it’s the slope, it’s just been I guess a little bit of everything,” Fassi said. “It’s kicking me, but I can fight back.”

Fassi did think matters changed on her final nine holes Saturday, saying she felt way better over putts and even drained a few.

It’s a feeling she hopes to hold onto Sunday and, as Estes-Taylor noted, her star just needs to key into her memory to keep up the positivity.

“Maria has made a mile of putts this year, I think she just has to remember that,” Estes-Taylor said.

The coach is surprised by the team’s “funky” start, but not overly so. Golf is streaky and you never know when you’ll have a tough week.

All her starters are healthy and Estes-Taylor is confident in the team strategy to play Karsten Creek, it just needs to be executed better.

Something the Razorbacks will hope for is a more relaxed approach even as the first cutline approaches. Senior Alana Uriell could feel herself becoming too stressed about the NCAA Championship as she piled up bogeys on her final nine in the opening round.

“I was mostly really worried that I was blowing it for the team,” Uriell said. “I was like, ‘Man, I really should’ve made that putt because that could’ve been everything.’ But you can’t really think like that.”

Uriell hasn’t finished worse than T-16 in an event this season but finds herself T-65 at 8 over through her 36 holes as she’s struggled to find fairways. Dylan Kim (T-13, 1 over) is the only Arkansas player in the top 60 currently.

Even with all this, Arkansas can certainly come back and reach match play at the NCAA Championship for the first time. With Round 2’s afternoon wave still having to face a difficult Karsten Creek, Arkansas will likely move up a few spots by day’s end.

There are still 18 holes thereafter before the 54-hole cut. And Arkansas will have 36 holes to reach the top eight for match play as long as the team is 15th or better through 54.

The team is confident it has the firepower to fight back, and Fassi’s confidence did rise late in her round Saturday.

Uriell made it clear this group doesn’t measure its value on golf score, and then added a jolt of optimism about the team’s prospects going forward this week.

“I really believe we’ll be fine,” Uriell said.

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