STILLWATER, Okla. – Word has it that early voting has been strong for this year’s ANNIKA Award Presented by 3M, and while it’s terrific to see folks participating, I can’t get past one question.
How in the world can anyone (besides biased teammates) cast a vote this year before stroke play even begins at the NCAA Championship?
It seems to this writer, anyway, that an NCAA title carries the weight of a major. It’s the deepest field of the year. It’s the most prestigious and the most pressure-packed, given the number of cuts (two for stroke play). It’s televised.
Arkansas’ Maria Fassi came to Karsten Creek with seven titles on the season and a 102-18-4 record against the top 50 in college golf. She lost in a playoff at the SECs while helping the Razorbacks to their first conference title, and became the first Arkansas player to medal at regionals. But is she a lock?
Not with a handful of five- and four-time winners in position to win the NCAA individual title. And not with Fassi shocking the field at 19 over.
For starters, Jennifer Kupcho, a four-time winner this season, is back in contention at the NCAA Championship. The Wake Forest junior enters the final round tied with Alabama’s Cheyenne Knight. If Kupcho’s fifth title of the year comes at Karsten Creek, that has to merit votes.
UCLA’s Lilia Vu won four consecutive events early in the season and then lost in a playoff at Pac 12s. (Ties are considered a victory in the rankings systems. Same goes for Fassi, who lost in a playoff at SECs.) Vu has only nine losses against top-25 players for the year. Should Vu hang on to claim the NCAA crown, surely that would tip the scale in her favor. After all, Vu has finished T-6 or better in eight of nine events this year. Her 12 rounds in the 60s is a school record.
Vu trails Kupcho by six shots. Her teammate, freshman Patty Tavantanakit, also has four titles this season, including a victory at both conference and regionals (Tavantanakit beat Vu in a playoff at the Pac-12s). Tavantanakit would need a heroic finish to win, as she’s eight shots back, but anything can happen at a tough track like Karsten. Tavantanakit ranks first in strength of schedule, too.
What happens at Karsten Creek shouldn’t be over-valued, as Kent State coach Greg Robertson noted. An NCAA title shouldn’t trump an overall body of work, but it’s certainly a factor.
Kent State sophomore Pimnipa Panthong won four consecutive events this spring, including the MAC Championship in record fashion. Panthong’s strength of schedule ranking (346) pales in comparison to Fassi’s (39) or Vu’s (46).
But what if Panthong beat everyone at NCAAs and led her team to its first national title? That’s not going to happen this year, as Panthong tumbled down the leaderboard with a third-round 78. But hypothetically, a Cinderella from a mid-major program should have a chance at the big awards if she wins at every level.
Plenty of time left to vote
Voting for the ANNIKA officially ends at 11:59 p.m. Wednesday, which means an individual’s performance in match play could count too.
Even Alabama’s Lauren Stephenson should have a chance. She has eight top-5 finishes in 10 starts, including two wins, and leads the nation in scoring at 69.48. Stephenson enters the final round four back of the leaders and 19 shots ahead of Fassi. In head-to-head competition this season, Fassi leads 3-2-1, a record that will even out after Monday.
Fassi was the clear-cut favorite heading into nationals. She’s ranked No. 1 in both the Golfweek and Golfstat rankings, but that will most certainly change after her startling performance in Stillwater. Fassi estimates she had at least 12 three-putts in her first two rounds of 81-78. That big miss opened the door for other heavy hitters to make a closing argument.
Early voting simply wasn’t an option this time. Gwk