NCAA women's Championship: The course is winning


BRADENTON, Fla. – The numbers are jarring.

The 54-hole cut at this women’s NCAA Championship will fall somewhere around 65 over par. No player is in red numbers. The scoring average for the 24-team field is 78.47. There has been one round in the 60s – and seven in the 90s.

No wonder this place is nicknamed Concussion.

Look, it’s no surprise that players and coaches have voiced their displeasure about the penal setup. But it’s the volume of the complaints that has everyone's attention.

So what happened? How did this championship at least temporarily spiral out of control?

There are a few explanations, which is why Jerry Lemieux, director of rules for the women’s NCAA Championship and the man responsible for the course setup at Concession Golf Club, is taking a seat in a chair outside the extravagant clubhouse here.

He begins by saying that he’s made a few mistakes, that maybe he should have eased into the week, that maybe he should have ramped up the intensity with each passing round, instead of dialing it back after the big scores and the bellyaching.

“But we looked at this thing on the scorecard,” he says, “and playing it at 6,400 yards in firm and fast conditions didn’t scare us."

It does now. Through the first two rounds, 17 of the 24 teams posted their worst 18-hole score of the season.

USC, Duke lead women's NCAAs

Scores: Women's NCAA Championship team | Individual

Playing bad golf is frustrating, and the annoyance is only amplified when the heat index creeps over 100 degrees and the wind blows and the pressure mounts and the nerves start and the expectation rises and the crowd swells and the cameras power on.

“And once it starts,” Lemieux says of the criticism, “it can breed a slippery slope as a player and that can be their get-out-of-jail-free card.

“The coaches that you see with their teams with a positive attitude, who know that this is a week of survival, who have prepared their players for this and held their chins up, those are the teams we’ll see in match play.”

It’s a delicate balance: A setup that is too easy doesn’t separate the field, while one that is too difficult tends to cause turmoil.

But there’s also an underlying issue at work here.

Women’s college golf hasn’t been on national television in years, and everyone hopes to make a good impression when the cameras start rolling for real Monday afternoon. That’s problematic now, Washington coach Mary Lou Mulflur says, because “people will see teams 40 over par in the mix, and it doesn’t make us look very good.”

No one wants to see these elite players get embarrassed. 

“This setup is the most difficult I’ve been on,” Alabama coach Mic Potter added. “And I don’t think that’s a bad thing, as long as it doesn’t hurt the perception of our sport.”

It's important to note that Lemieux had a few disadvantages this year.

Concession is a relative newcomer, having opened in 2006, and there have been no significant women’s events held here. Officials at host sites the past three years relied on ample data for how the course played for a women’s event. Not so here. All Lemieux had to work with were discussions with the club, chats with a few LPGA players who are members here, and then visits to the course last September and then again a week ago.

Another factor: Players and coaches always had two practice rounds in the lead-up to the championship. But with the women’s move to match play, visiting teams weren’t allowed to see the course until Thursday morning, the lone practice round. To adequately prepare for this championship – and specifically the severity of these green complexes, which are 9,000 square feet but with only about 500 square feet of usable targets – they needed more than a six-hour tour with their teammates.

“’Brutal’ is probably a good word for it,” Washington’s Charlotte Thomas (+6, T-11) said. “Bogey is not a bad score, and that’s a scary thing.” 

All of that said, let's face it: Concession is playing as expected. The course rating is 78.1, and members joke that it’s really a par 80. The scoring average for the first two rounds: 78.35 and 79.21, respectively.

“That’s what we signed up for with this golf course,” Lemieux said. “We signed up to play a very hard course.”

Have there been a few surprises? Sure.

All four par 3s are longer than 160 yards, but the greens haven’t been as receptive to shots with long irons or hybrids.

The par-4 16th is one of the course’s signature holes, but over the first two rounds the players shied away from the water on the left and bailed out, leaving 200-plus yards into a treacherous green.

And instead of playing to conservative quadrants, dozens of players have been seen pinballing their shots across the green.

As Arizona coach Laura Ianoella said: “You never feel safe out here.”

“If you are not on your game,” Lemieux said, “mentally as well as physically and you make a mistake, it will bite you in the ass.”

The South Carolina men’s team arrived at Concession on Sunday, and expect plenty more to take in the final few days of the women’s championship.

Seems everyone is spooked by the high scores.

“There’s no pride of authorship in this,” Lemieux said. “I signed my name to this at the end of the day. If the coaches are having a problem with this, then we’ll continue to try to make it better.”

Yet the goal of any setup specialist – whether it’s Lemieux, the USGA’s Mike Davis or the PGA’s Kerry Haigh – is to identity the best teams and players.

And, well, look at the leaderboard here: USC and Duke, the two best teams in the country, are positioned 1-2 with a few holes left in their third rounds, at 28 and 31 over, respectively. The individual standings show Alabama's Emma Talley, a player with major-championship experience, leading 2013 NCAA champion Annie Park of USC and No. 1-ranked Leona Maguire of Duke. 

“I don’t see tremendous flukes,” Potter said.

Lemieux told every coach at the start of the week that though this is a difficult golf course, they are grading on a curve. It doesn’t matter whether they’re 33 over or 33 under – the eight teams that advance get A's. And then it's on to match play, a format that perfectly suits this ruthless track.

“We’ll give the trophy to five women who will be really happy,” he said, “and it’ll be like a badge of honor – we won it at Concession.”