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Match play giving women's college golf its due

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EUGENE, Ore. – The NCAA Women’s Championship – a niche of a niche of a niche – was a top-10 trending topic on Twitter on Wednesday night. That hasn’t happened since … well, this time last year.

Despite the initial handwringing, match play has been a game-changer for women’s college golf.

The most stubborn critics will point to the fact that the No. 1-ranked team hasn’t yet won the national title; that the top seed in stroke play hasn’t also swept the match-play bracket; that Stanford (2015) and Washington (2016) needed a format change to bring home the program’s first NCAA Championship.

All true, but that perspective is shortsighted: Most importantly, the new-look NCAAs are smashing perceptions of the women’s game.

The past two championships have produced some of the most riveting golf of the year, at any level.

“It’s showed people that girls can do it, too,” Washington senior Charlotte Thomas said. “Some people don’t believe that, and it kind of sucks, but it’s just as thrilling watching the women’s game as it is watching the men. We may not be able to hit it as far, but we can deal with the same things.”

Thomas is right, unfortunately: There is a stigma attached to women’s golf, especially at the college level. They don’t play very fast. They don’t hit it very far. They don’t create much spin.

But that doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of producing thrilling golf.

Last year, clinging to a narrow lead in the pivotal match, Baylor’s Hayley Davis slashed a 9-iron out of a muddy hazard to 7 feet. It was a brazen play, one of the shots of the year, an unlikely birdie that appeared to give the Bears the title. Then Stanford’s Mariah Stackhouse birdied the final two holes of regulation, including a gut-check 15-footer on the last, and prevailed in a playoff.

“I thought last year was drama and it could never be topped and never be matched,” Stanford coach Anne Walker said, “and then this happened.”

The shots Washington pulled off at Eugene Country Club were so clutch, and so unpredictable, that Walker was convinced there was a “bigger force at play.”

In the semifinals against UCLA, Washington freshman Sarah Rhee won four holes in a row, slam-dunking a long bunker shot on the first playoff hole to send the Huskies to the finals.

It was just the beginning.

In the championship match, Washington senior Ying Luo birdied the 17th hole against the previously unbeaten Casey Danielson, then nipped her 61-yard pitch shot perfectly, with the ball tracking into the cup and touching off a wild celebration around the 18th green.

For the second consecutive day, Rhee won three holes in a row late on the back nine to square her match against Stackhouse, Stanford’s team leader, before eventually falling in the playoff.

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And then there was the wild ride of fellow freshman Julianne Alvarez. She coughed up a 3-up lead against Stanford’s Lauren Kim, three-putting the final green from 25 feet because of nerves, and then hooked her drive into a fairway bunker on the first extra hole. After laying up, she stuffed her 81-yard wedge shot to 18 inches to save par, then hit what turned out to be the decisive stroke – a tricky chip up and over a slope for a conceded par.

“Any of these girls up for hire on a couple short-game lessons this week?” tweeted Wake Forest star Will Zalatoris. “My goodness … impressive.”

Even in defeat, Kim took a big-picture approach to another memorable performance on the biggest stage in the sport.

“It puts women’s golf in such a positive light,” she said, “that women can make it exciting, as exciting as the men, and we can make those shots under pressure.”

And the match-play heroics are sure to overshadow a sublime four days from Duke freshman Virginia Elena Carta, who shattered the NCAA scoring mark with a 16-under performance and won the individual race by eight.

“Maybe they can’t hit it as far,” Washington coach Mary Lou Mulflur said, “but that doesn’t mean they can’t get it in the hole just as well.”

Match play has been used to determine the men’s team champion since 2009. It was announced five years later that the women would follow suit, though the majority of coaches were against the move.

Like most sports, the postseason might not always crown the best team that season – that's why they play the games and the matches, after all – but it has created a more exciting finale that keeps more squads emotionally invested. A few years ago, the big question tournament week was whether Arizona State, Duke or Southern Cal would win by 10, 25 or 50 strokes.

“When I was on a team,” said Walker, who played for Cal, “we weren’t really playing for first. We made it to the national championship, but that was like a participation medal. There was usually 24 teams showing up and one, maybe two or three were thinking about winning and the rest were just taking a week off from school to go play a great golf course.

“This week, we had 24 teams show up, and I guarantee there wasn’t a coach or a kid in the field that wasn’t thinking, Gosh, we could be the ones in there with that trophy, and I think that’s pretty cool.”

Some of the perennial powerhouses might disagree, of course. USC and Duke – winners of eight of the past 15 NCAAs – have failed to reach the finals each of the past two years, and top seed UCLA fell to Washington in a taut semifinal. But much like the players, coaches have needed to adjust their styles, as well.

In four years at Stanford, Walker has developed a reputation as one of the sharpest minds in the game. Along with Stackhouse and Kim, Walker has helped shape the culture in Palo Alto, becoming more family-oriented and placing an emphasis on strong communication, respect and a passion for the game. It’s been crucial to the team’s success in the match-play format; Stanford was a hole away from becoming just the fourth program to win back-to-back titles.

“To succeed in this format,” Walker said, “you have to know your players really well. We’ve had some success because I feel like I have a strong connection and the players are willing to tell me what they need in that moment.”

Washington assistant coach Andrea VanderLende, a former NCAA runner-up at Florida, realized early that one of the advantages of this format was a strong mental game. “They’re all skilled,” she said, “so who can pull off the clutch shots?”

And so during the tense final hour, VanderLende worked to keep Luo and Rhee in the moment. She asked them to close their eyes and listen to their surroundings, and they reported hearing cameras, a plane, feet traipsing through the grass.

“They were thinking about the here and now,” VanderLende said, “and not what had happened before or after.”

The tactic worked. After sizing up the pitch shot on 18, VanderLende told Luo that she could make it. A few moments later, she did.

“Five years ago,” VanderLende said, “I wasn’t the same coach.”

The move to match play – and the national TV exposure – has also turned what would be anonymous players into recognizable stars. Now, when Stackhouse or Luo reach out to sponsors for tournament exemptions this summer, they’ll already know all about the players' exploits in college.

“I’ve heard it over and over again, that I can’t believe how good these female golfers are in college,” Walker said. “Women are driven socially, and when you can be a part of a team and not just see it as an individual sport, it’ll keep young girls in the sport. They put a face with a name and remember what they did. I think that’s a positive.”

Strongly opposed to match play when it was first introduced, Mulflur might never have won a national title without the format change. For 31 years, her teams never came particularly close. In Year 2 of match play, they won it all.

Not that Mulflur seemed to care, as she hoisted the NCAA trophy high above her head, whooping and hollering, after one of the most dramatic finishes in college golf history.

“I have a saying,” she said late Wednesday night, “that it doesn’t matter what they say, as long as they’re talking about you. And people are talking about women’s college golf.”