NCAA alters national championship schedule for BYU women

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The cheers in Baton Rouge, La., reverberated through NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis.

Last Saturday, when BYU’s women’s team clinched a spot in next week’s national championship, it created a series of obstacles for the NCAA.

As a Mormon-run school, BYU prohibits Sunday play for all of its sports teams. Problem is, the third round of stroke-play qualifying at Eugene Country Club is scheduled for Sunday, May 22.

The NCAA must provide an accommodation for any school that cannot compete on a particular day for a religious reason, and so they announced this week a revised, and unprecedented, schedule of events for the NCAA Women’s Championship:

Instead of playing its third round on Sunday, BYU will now compete on Thursday (May 19), which is the lone practice-round day for the 24-team field.

The practice round is a 9:30 a.m. shotgun start, with BYU scheduled to begin its preparations on the 14th hole. Once all teams complete their practice round, BYU will have 30 minutes before the start of its first round of play (which is technically Round 3, played to Sunday hole locations). All five Cougars players will be sent off individually, at seven-minute intervals, alongside a walking scorer and a rules official who will serve as a marker.

Most interesting, however, is that the other coaches and players will be allowed to watch BYU compete from outside the ropes. In fact, they’d be wise to do so – they’re getting a sneak peek at the hole locations for Sunday’s round.

“It’s definitely going to be unique,” BYU coach Carrie Roberts said by phone, “and hopefully we give them a good show.”

The BYU situation has created a stir in the college golf community. Not all 24 teams are competing on a level playing field, and so it’s possible, maybe even likely, that the conditions BYU plays in Thursday will be different than what the rest of the field faces on Sunday when the Cougars are back at the team hotel.

“We’ve never been in this situation before, so we don’t know if it’s going to be good or not,” Roberts said. “The talk is about if it’s an advantage for us, but what if it isn’t? If it’s a disadvantage for us, nobody says a thing. But if it’s an advantage, it’s a huge topic.

“That’s something out of our control. We don’t want an unfair advantage. We don’t want the weather to be good one day and to be bad on Sunday. That’s the last thing we’d want. Hopefully it’s the same for everybody.”

BYU must be among the top 15 teams after 54 holes to advance to Monday’s final round of stroke-play qualifying, which will determine the eight-team match-play bracket.

Of course, this scenario was bound to arise eventually: BYU’s golf programs have combined to compete in more than 35 NCAAs, and last year both the men’s and women’s competitions switched to a Friday-Wednesday championship format on the same venue.

What’s unfortunate is that the fair-play controversy threatens to overshadow what has been a resurgent season for the 26th-ranked Cougars, who won a school-record five events, including their first West Coast Conference title.

At the Baton Rouge regional, BYU was in line for the sixth and final qualifying spot before playing the short 15th hole in 6 over par. With three holes to play, the Cougars dropped behind Houston, which had already posted a three-round total of 21-over 885.

Then BYU’s Rose Huang shook off a triple bogey on 15 and recorded three consecutive pars to close. So did Alex White. Kendra Dalton added a birdie on the last. All of a sudden, they had tied Houston, with one group left on the course.

And so BYU’s postseason hopes came down to the team’s best player, senior Lea Garner, who was reeling after three straight bogeys on Nos. 15-17. After a perfect drive on 18, Garner stuck a 6-iron from 145 yards to about 8 feet.

“You know how sometimes you’re lined up perfectly and if you make a good stroke it’s going to go in?” Garner asked Roberts later. “That’s what it felt like.”

Garner, who tied for fourth individually, poured in the birdie putt to edge Houston by one and send the Cougars to their first NCAA finals since the 2006-07 season.

“College golf is the ultimate team sport, and everybody has to contribute,” Roberts said. “You can’t have a LeBron James that kind of carries you. You all have to have five No. 1s to compete, and everybody did their job.”

Whether the Cougars can extend their postseason will come down to their play, certainly, but also the luck of the draw.

“We’re just grateful,” Roberts said, “that the NCAA is going to accommodate us and give us a chance.”