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Conditions making Women's NCAAs a test of survival

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SUGAR GROVE, Ill. – Florida State’s Amy Bond, in her 17th year as a coach, has already experienced two career firsts this week at the NCAA Women’s Championship.

Both happened Friday, when the Seminoles and a few other highly ranked teams blew themselves out of contention for a national title.

First, Bond snapped wooden tees so a few of her players could tee up their hybrid shots on a – get this – artificial mat on the par-4 fourth hole, an emergency move by the NCAA after it became clear that some players wouldn’t be able to carry the hazard with the wind pumping into their face.

“Broke ’em in my hand,” Bond said. “It’s dumping rain, and I said, ‘Ah, just get them to me.’”

Later, she watched three of her players lay up on a 368-yard hole that they treated as a par 5, with a long carry over a hazard and a tree blocking the flag on the left side of the green.

It’s the luck of the draw, of course, but for two and a half hours Friday, the best teams in the country – the top seeds in the tournament – slashed away in horrible conditions that Bond said were the worst she’d ever seen on a course.

There was sideways rain that rendered umbrellas useless.

There were 30-mph gusts.

There was a 36-degree wind chill.

Not surprisingly, the golf was ugly: The top four seeds counted just 12 birdies, total, and there were 76 rounds in the 80s and 90s.

Rich Harvest Farms is a brute even when it’s calm, and the first two rounds here presented a challenge that no team could have possibly prepared for.

And, oh, did they try.

Bond’s FSU squad signed up for a four-team match-play event with Northwestern (about 60 miles away) on April 29. The reason Florida State, Duke and Alabama all made the trip up north was simple: They wanted to simulate the conditions they’d face a few weeks later, at nationals.

“A great idea,” Duke coach Dan Brooks said. “We thought we did all the right things.”

Right idea, poor execution.

Yes, Northwestern has cruised through 36 holes, leading the way here by eight shots at 23-over 599, but look at the last three teams from the morning wave:

Duke at 58 over.

Florida State at 59 over.

And Alabama, dead last, at 65 over.

“When you get a pencil in your hand and you have to put down a score,” Alabama coach Mic Potter said, “everything changes.”

Last year, as the No. 1-ranked team in the country, the Crimson Tide struggled in Round 1 at Eugene Country Club and failed to make match play. Now, even after Potter scouted Rich Harvest Farms last June and then added the match-play event to the schedule, his team appears poised to miss out again.

“It’s tough,” he said, “because we pointed toward this all year and coming into it, I felt like we were really prepared.

“I felt much more prepared this year coming into this. Even though I saw what the conditions were going to be the first day, I thought we had a team that was prepared to battle through it. But obviously we’ve got a little more work to do.”

What that means going forward is that the NCAAs will be missing some serious star power, with the eighth-, fifth- and second-ranked squads all essentially eliminated with one more round before the cut to the low eight teams for match play. (Stroke-play qualifying was reduced from 72 to 54 holes, because of weather.) More powerhouse programs are sure to join, after a second round that produced a scoring average north of 77 and no team score better than 10 over.

Said Brooks: “It’s like I told the team: We’re playing bad. That’s it. The sentence stops right there. If someone else has anything to say, don’t say it around me, because the sentence that needs to be said is that we’re playing bad, period. It’s not wrong tee times or they cut a day away. If they gave us five days and we played like this, it’s not going to make any difference.”

Even for those in contention, there’s a familiar sense of frustration and exasperation.

Two years ago, at Concession Golf Club outside Tampa, the cutoff for match play after four rounds was 62 over par.

It’s reasonable to expect the cut line here to fall somewhere around 50 over par – and that’s after only three rounds.

“You definitely have another Concession on your hands here,” Bond said.

But as much as the first two rounds were a test of survival, eight teams will still move on to the match-play portion, no matter how poor the golf has been to this point.

Said Florida coach Emily Glaser: “We’ve just got to try to give ’em heck and see what happens.”