BRADENTON, Fla. – The NCAA Women’s Championship looked and felt like the 2014 U.S. Open, and not just because of the penal setup.
This is the first time that the women’s and men’s championships were played on the same course in consecutive weeks.
At Pinehurst, it was the women who walked inside the ropes in the final round as Martin Kaymer waltzed to another major title.
Here at Concession, it was the men who strolled the grounds as they got a sneak peek at the championship venue.
More than anything, what they saw on television, online and in person was a brutal golf course. Southern Cal won the 72-hole stroke-play portion at 40 over par. Only three players finished under par. There was an alarming number of scores in the 80s and 90s, and with that came the predictable chorus of critics.
“We weren’t surprised at all,” said South Florida coach Steve Bradley, whose school is hosting this year’s NCAAs. “We’ve played this place. We know how tough it is.”
So what, then, can the 30 men’s teams here learn from their predecessors as they prepare for their own championship, which begins Friday?
Not much, apparently.
Sure, they could familiarize themselves with the layout, but the men play an entirely different style of golf, big and brawny. They’re longer off the tee. They flight the ball higher. They spin the ball more. And they’re used to putting on lightning-fast greens.
All of which is why Georgia Tech coach Bruce Heppler had little interest in watching the women’s championship unfold.
“I don’t want to make judgments on it beforehand,” he said, “or you’ll think it’s the hardest place in America.”
Let’s be clear: The cutoff for match play this week will not come at 62 over par, as it did on the women's side.
Many coaches expect to see a winning qualifier score around even par, with the eight-team cut somewhere in the mid-20s. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see several players fire a round in the mid-to-upper 60s, depending on the crankiness of the setup staff.
For the women, tournament officials set up the course more difficult early, then dialed it back late when the number of high scores – and complaints – increased.
Many anticipate that the men will be greeted by a softer, more forgiving setup early and for the course to become more difficult as the week progresses.
Though the men might not be able to learn much from the women’s tee-to-green game, they at least saw where (and where not) to miss.
They knew, for instance … that the par-4 eighth requires a very precise approach, with sand left and water short.
And they knew … that it’s not always wise to go for the par 5s in two, because of their severe (excessive?) undulations.
And they knew … all about Mariah Stackhouse’s debacle at the par-5 13th, where she laid up in the fairway and hit what seemed like what a solid wedge shot to the back-right part of the green. Too much sidespin sent her ball all the way into the valley left of the green, and she proceeded to play pinball before eventually conceding the hole.
It was an all-too-familiar sight for the USF players.
“This course can bite you really quick,” sophomore Rigel Fernandes said. “Most courses only have a few of them, but Nos. 1-18 out here are big-number holes.”
It’s clear that the Bulls have a significant advantage this week, even though they’re an hour from campus and Concession isn’t their home track. As the host school USF is the only team that was allowed to practice at the championship venue during the season, and the Bulls felt so comfortable Thursday that they played only 11 practice holes.
That doesn’t mean they always torch this place. Far from it.
This spring alone they’ve teed it up at Concession eight times. It took the Bulls seven tries before they finally had multiple players break par in a round, a reminder that there’s a big difference between comfort and execution.
“You’d have to spend 10 hours out here to understand every single slope,” Fernandes said.
Heck, the rest of the field almost did Thursday, as teams slogged through a seven-hour practice round in 95-degree heat. That’s a less-than-ideal way to warm up for an already brutally long week, but the other 29 teams had no choice – they had to maximize their time at Concession in their one and only tour.
Unless, of course, it’s a team like Stanford, which felt as though it already intimately knew the track. Last week, Lauren Kim, an integral part of the women’s team, texted photos of her entire yardage book in a group chat. During the week leading up to this event, they practiced the specific shots they knew they would face.
“We already knew what the holes looked like,” said Cardinal sophomore Maverick McNealy, the presumptive favorite for player of the year. “Just thinking about it is huge.”
So was seeing the execution of a sound game plan. McNealy and Co. had a view from the rope line Wednesday as the women’s team took home its first national title, 3-2, over Baylor.
“One of the coolest things I’ve seen in person,” McNealy said, “watching it all go down.”
Now it’s up to his teammates – and the rest of the 29 squads here – to conjure up the same magic.