After seeing the thrills of match play extend across the different divisions of the golf world, the time has come for the top women’s programs in the nation to go head-to-head when the 24-team NCAA Division I National Championship begins Friday at Concession Golf Club.
Gone is the stale 72-hole stroke-play tournament. In its place is the exact same format as the men – four rounds of stroke-play qualifying to cut to the top eight seeds (and crown an individual winner), followed by two days of intense, knockout-style match play to determine the team champion that will air live on Golf Channel.
There are several benefits to this format change, chief among them that it brings more teams into the mix.
Recent NCAA championships had little mystery or drama – one of the top squads almost always won. After all, only eight teams have won an NCAA title in the past 21 years, with Duke hoisting six trophies over that span, including last spring. But since the men switched to match play in 2009, teams outside the traditional power structure have risen to the top. With this new format for the women, not to mention the immense growth of women’s programs across the board, this could be the year for what would otherwise be considered an upset.
With that in mind, here are a few of the teams and players that you should keep an eye on over the next six days in Bradenton, Fla.:
1. Duke: Is title No. 7 in the cards? The Blue Devils have two of the top five players in the world in their starting lineup – No. 1 Leona Maguire and No. 5 Celine Boutier – but their depth will be tested in the head-to-head format in which every player’s match counts the same. While two phenomenal players often can win a team a stroke-play tournament, it’s not always enough in match play. Just ask the U.S. Ryder Cuppers.
2. Washington: This is a team that won't go down without a fight. Huskies coach Mary Lou Mulflur told GolfChannel.com that this year has been the most rewarding of her career. With a stat sheet that includes six wins and nine top-5s – even with the loss of its two best players, SooBin Kim and Jing Yan, midway through the season – Washington has held it together this spring to remain one of the top contenders.
3. Northwestern: Talk about a group that won’t come undone because of adversity – the three-win Wildcats are the only cold-weather team to advance to nationals, their third consecutive NCAA appearance. They should play fearlessly in the Florida warmth.
4. LSU’s Madelene Sagstrom: The Tigers owe much of their success this season to this standout senior. Not only has Sagstrom notched two wins this season, including at the NCAA Raleigh regional, but she also has yet to finish outside the top-3 (!) during the spring. Now that is graduating with honors.
5. Duke’s Leona Maguire: The fabulous freshman has made her first year as a Blue Devil a memorable one, ascending to No. 1 in the country on the strength of three wins, including the ACC Championship and South Bend regional. She’s the favorite to take home the NCAA individual title.
Note: Shalhoup was a three-year captain for NYU’s golf team, earning 22 top-10 finishes in her career