UCLA fires 9 under as 'redemption season' continues at NCAAs

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UCLA fires 9 under as 'redemption season' continues at NCAAs

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UCLA fires 9 under as 'redemption season' continues at NCAAs

STILLWATER, Okla. – UCLA’s flight home from Lubbock, Texas, last May was mostly silent. The top-seeded Bruins had shockingly just failed to advance out of the NCAA Lubbock Regional, becoming the first No. 1 seed in NCAA Division I women’s golf history to miss out on the NCAA Championship as a top regional seed.

Many players, including Lilia Vu, who had just seen her player-of-the-year hopes dashed as well, didn’t pick up a club for a couple of days after that. They needed some time to heal.

“I was really depressed,” Vu said.

Said UCLA head coach Carrie Forsyth: “It was so tough for us to not be at the championship and have to suffer through that week and watch it on TV.”

The Bruins were slightly comforted when they heard about the disastrous weather conditions in Sugar Grove, Ill. – cold, rainy, windy. Back home in sunny Los Angeles, the weather was nearly perfect. Ideal beach weather. Only the UCLA players weren’t heading to the coast but rather the range to work on their games.

“We were back out there grinding,” Vu said. “At first we were really sad, but that week also motivated us so much.”

When the time came again for them to compete for their ticket to nationals, the Bruins were going to be ready. A year later, they secured a spot at the NCAA Women’s Championship with a second-place finish at the NCAA San Francisco Regional two weeks ago. And now, through 36 holes at Karsten Creek, the Bruins are leading the field by five shots as the only team under par.

“This feels so good,” said Forsyth, whose third-ranked Bruins fired a 9-under 279 alongside Nos. 1 and 2, Alabama and Arkansas, to move to 3 under on the team leaderboard.

“In this game, you have to be able to just pick yourself up and go again. I knew they would. There was no doubt.”

UCLA won six times during the regular season, including five in a row at one point and also the Pac-12 Championship, which they captured by 12 shots. Last year the Bruins struggled to find a replacement for Bronte Law, who turned pro midseason. This year’s squad has more depth and no weak link.

As Forsyth put it, “These girls belonged at the championship this year.”

“This year we have an even stronger team,” said Bethany Wu, one of two juniors in UCLA’s lineup along with Vu. “I’m really proud of how this team has come out and performed.”

Wu carded her first under-par round in 14 rounds on Saturday, a 1-under 71 that included four birdies on her first 10 holes. It was a good sign considering Wu, who posted four straight top-6 finishes earlier this season, hadn’t finished better than T-25 in six straight starts entering this week.

Vu, who was won four times individually this season, led the way with a 4-under 68 to climb to T-3 on the individual leaderboard. After missing out on the ANNIKA Award last season, she’s very much in the running to capture the prestigious award this season.

Sophomore Mariel Galdiano, who has five top-5s of her own this season, added a 3-under 69 and is even par for the championship.

But the biggest difference this season has arguably been freshman Patty Tavatanakit. The 2016 Rolex AJGA Junior Player of the Year has four wins this season, as well, including at the Pac-12 Championship and NCAA San Francisco Regional. She is 2 under through 36 holes at Karsten Creek despite making three double bogeys.

Tavatanakit has injected a copious amount of energy into this Bruins squad. Her sense of humor has loosened up a team that was hit so hard by heartbreak last spring. Tavatanakit calls it “entertainment.”

“Patty is one of the most energetic people I’ve ever met,” Wu said. “Her energy, she makes everyone smile and it’s really funny the things she does. She’s the triple threat – great golfer, great teammate and she makes everyone laugh.”

On the course, Tavatanakit is a fiery and aggressive player with a power game that is unmatched by most of her peers. (She consistently carries her driver closer to 270 yards.)

“She wants to make anything from everywhere,” Vu said. “She wants to hole out from the fairway every time. If she hits it to 5 feet, she’ll be mad.”

Forsyth said her star freshman has learned to reel in some of that emotion this year.

“She’s very competitive and she doesn’t always handle defeat and bad shots very well,” Forsyth said. “She’s much more resilient now.”

And so is this team. Looking at this bunch through two days this week, one would never know the pain they experienced just more than a year ago. Tavatanakit capped her first round on Friday with an eagle at the par-5 ninth hole and pumped her fists while her teammates cheered from just off the green. Vu’s second shot into the par-5 18th on Saturday ended up just on the back fringe, giving her a good look at eagle. When her ball stopped just short of the rough, Vu could be seen in the fairway with both hands raised in the air, and again the rest of the Bruins were cheering greenside.

And although it’s fairly common in women’s college golf, the UCLA players make it a point to watch their teammates finish their rounds and greet them with a hug no matter what the scorecard looks like.

“We’ve been confident in each other and boosting each other up all season,” Tavatanakit said. “We just really believe in ourselves and that faith, it’s what is holding us together and helping us shoot low rounds.”

On what will probably be the most scorable day of this championship, no score was lower than the Bruins.

“We’re pumped,” Wu said. “This is a redemption season for us, and getting here was good, but now we’re ready to win.”

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