No top seeds, but match-play format a success


BRADENTON, Fla. – When Southern Cal was eliminated Tuesday during the semifinals of the NCAA Women’s Championship, a curious streak remained intact. 

Never has the No. 1 seed gone on to win the national title. That’s been the case on the men’s side since 2009, when match play was first used to determine the team champion, and it happened again to the top-seeded Trojans in their afternoon match against Stanford.

Does that mean that this match-play experiment doesn’t work, that the format doesn’t crown a deserving champion? Hardly.

Both teams may be ranked outside the top 10, but No. 13 Stanford has been plagued by injuries this season and No. 18 Baylor has been the hottest team this spring, winning four times, including the Big 12 Championship and NCAA regional tournament. Neither school has ever won a national title in women's college golf.

Match play is bound to produce a few unexpected performances, but all four top seeds – the teams that performed the best in 72-hole stroke play – advanced to the semifinals. There were no flukes here.

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In the old format, USC on Monday would have won its fourth national title in the past dozen years, with a sleepy five-shot win over Duke. 

Both top seeds lost in the semifinals, but only because they squandered plenty of chances to move on. 

In truth, the Trojans were fortunate to eke past Washington in the quarterfinals before they lost to Stanford, 3-2, after their two USGA champions, Gabriella Then and Annie Park, ran out of steam. Duke’s Leona Maguire, the nation’s top college player, lost her match to fellow freshman Dylan Kim of Baylor, and then Maguire’s twin sister, Lisa, dropped her match in 24 dramatic holes.

Those top seeds simply got beat.

Still, the move to match play proved a significant adjustment for many squads.

Including Thursday’s practice round, both teams in the championship final have played eight rounds in seven days. That’s a ton of high-pressure golf for anyone, but two other factors ratcheted up the intensity: The heat index has approached 110 degrees each day of competition this week, and four weather delays created a hectic early-week schedule that left many teams scrambling with little rest or time to recover. 

“All of us were pushed to the max,” USC coach Andrea Gaston said. “It was very wearing.”

Sure, the players may be dragging at this point, but the match-play bracket has injected some much-needed life into this championship. USC and Washington’s quarterfinal match – won by the Trojans, after a Washington player butchered the 17th hole – was an instant classic, and the afternoon semifinal between defending champion Duke and Baylor was one of the most thrilling displays in college golf history.

“There’s a lot more adrenaline,” Washington coach Mary Lou Mulflur said. “There’s a lot more emotion. Everything can turn on every shot, every putt. It’s such a great experience for them.”

Even the top seeds that headed home one day early can’t argue with that.