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Lighten up: Too tough is bad for NCAA women's optics

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SUGAR GROVE, Ill. – When the thrill of victory finally wore off Wednesday night, Arizona State coach Missy Farr-Kaye was so exhausted that it appeared as though she might fall asleep right there on the dais, the NCAA team trophy positioned in front of her.

“This is a grueling championship now with the format,” she said.

And there’s no disputing that.

With the days long and the nights short, the Sun Devils’ demanding week included three 4 a.m. wakeup calls, 36,000 steps a day and 108 holes – actually 18 fewer than it should have been, after the second round was canceled because of inclement weather. Making this year’s task even more arduous was the venue, Rich Harvest Farms, a brawny, penal and quirky course that for the second time in three years tested the boundaries of what’s fair in the NCAA Women’s Championship.

This is the third time that the women’s and men’s championships are being played on the same venue, an opportunity to showcase both events on television. The doubleheader began inauspiciously. In 2015, at Concession Golf Club in Florida, players and coaches were incensed by what they thought was an unfair setup. The course’s slick, undulating greens became unplayable for many of the game’s brightest stars, and the 72-hole stroke-play portion was a disaster – 62 over par was good enough to advance to match play, and only three individuals finished under par.

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The NCAA put Janet Lindsay, a 20-year veteran on the LPGA rules staff, in charge of the championship’s course setup, and she and the committee hit a home run last year at Eugene Country Club, which many coaches said was one of the fairest tests they’d played for nationals. The cutoff for match play: 14 over par.

No doubt, the weather last week at Rich Harvest Farms was dreadful. During the first round, players slogged through sideways rain, howling wind and 35-degree wind chills. Somehow, two players shot even par – “We shook our heads and said, ‘We can’t believe how good that is,’” Lindsay said – but many of the top teams in the country fired their worst scores of the season to blow out of contention after one round. The conditions Sunday weren’t much better, as the field scoring average hovered around 78, and through two rounds players recorded 316 double bogeys and 65 triples or worse on the wet course.

By the end of stroke play, the cut line fell at 55 over – seven strokes lower than Concession, but with one fewer round – and for the first time since 2009, there was an over-par medalist. Only one school, Alabama, shot a sub-par team round (1 under); had there been 72 holes, it’s likely a team would have been triple-digits over par.

In a tweet that has since been deleted, the 2016 NCAA champion Washington women’s golf team, which did not qualify for nationals, posted this: “1, yes, 1 subpar round from 24 of the VERY best teams in the nation over 3 days #NCAAGolf #really? Congrats to survivors.”

Of course, it wasn’t all chaos: The top four players in college golf all finished among the top 10 individually, with Player of the Year favorites Leona Maguire (Duke) and Jennifer Kupcho (Wake Forest) sharing second place. But other scores were alarmingly high.

“It bothers me because I know how good the golf is out here,” Duke coach Dan Brooks said. “Leona is a different character” – she’s the No. 1-ranked amateur in the world – “but it shouldn’t be that the only ones who are able to shoot 74 are your very cream. There should be a few more. This is a little bit of survival out here.”

Tournament officials immediately pointed to the weather – again, it was a significant factor – and how they tried to adapt each day to the changing conditions.

“But the golf course alone would have put us all the way to the red line,” Stanford coach Anne Walker said. “We were pushed past because of the weather.”

The coaches’ main concern is the perception of women’s college golf if the public sees players who are unable to hold greens or clear hazards or break 80. As one coach said, “We don’t have the best rep, anyway.”

“I don’t think it needs to be scoreable,” Walker said, “but it always needs to be fair. That’s what we have to keep an eye on.

“We have 120-plus players in the field. How many of those players will go on to become LPGA stars? Maybe eight to 10? And if you look, the majority of those kids are in the top 10 – for a reason, because they can handle it.

“But we’re not at the LPGA level. We’re not the U.S. Open. We’re at a college golf event, and we have to create a situation where it tests the world-class players but we also don’t lose the general population of women’s college golf.”

To its credit, the NCAA understands this dilemma.

“Of course we’re concerned,” Lindsay said, “because I don’t think those scores were a fair reflection of the talent in college golf. We’re the ones that made them go out and play in those conditions on a challenging golf course, and I think they held up very well.”

Unfortunately, it won’t get any easier in the future, with Oklahoma State’s Karsten Creek (2018) and Arkansas’ Blessings Golf Club (2019) on the schedule.

Rich Harvest Farms built a few new tees for the women’s championship, and the upcoming venues likely will have to do the same. Last year, during a three-round NCAA men’s regional at Karsten Creek, the fifth-place team shot 46 over par, while Blessings, with a rating of 79.1 and a slope of 153, is one of the most difficult courses in the country. When the women’s SEC Championship was last held there, in 2012, the winning score was 52 over par.

“If these girls want to play professional, they have to play difficult golf courses,” Florida State coach Amy Bond said. “But I’d like to see it where it’s truly scoreable for all of the girls, because there are some wonderful players who really deserve to be highlighted.”