“A little funky.”
Those were just a couple of the sentiments from Division I women’s college golf coaches following last week’s news that the number of teams advancing to the NCAA D-I Women’s Golf Championship was increasing by three, to 27, after the NCAA’s D-I Competition Oversight Committee approved a proposal put together by the D-I Women’s Golf Committee.
The change, the committee states, is designed to “provide an equitable championship access ratio across both Division I men’s and women’s golf.”
In terms of percentages, it technically achieves that, as the men and women each now have 10% of their total number of sponsored D-I programs advancing to nationals (the men send 30 teams to their NCAA Championship). And starting with this May’s championship, 18 more student-athletes (five starters and a sub from each of the three additional teams) will have an opportunity that they wouldn’t have had previously.
But the recent decision, though well intended, also creates a couple of new headaches.
“I’m thankful for the NCAA’s approval of 27 teams and excited for the additional student-athletes that will now have the opportunity to experience a national championship,” Oregon head coach Derek Radley said. “However, I think that we are all aware of the potential controversy…”
Radley, of course, is speaking of what will now be a difficult task for the committee, which must now decide how to allocate what will be an uneven number of finals berths to each of the six regional tournaments. This past season, the first since the number of women’s regional sites grew by two regionals to six, the top four teams from each of the six sites advanced to the 24-team NCAA Championship. This season, three regionals will receive four finals berths while the others get an extra, offering five tickets to Grayhawk.
The committee said that it will use a “strength-of-field metric” to make those determinations.
“There is nothing wrong with creating more opportunities as competitive as women’s golf has gotten, so it’s certainly a step in the right direction,” Oklahoma State head coach Greg Robertson said. “However, it’s going to be very awkward to now have three sites that have four advance and three sites that have five advance. Not sure what the answer is to keep it fair for everyone, but I’m sure there will be plenty of discussion about it at the convention next week.”
The Golf Coaches Association of America’s national convention takes place Monday-Wednesday in Las Vegas, and according to committee chair, Brad Hurlbut, the committee will hold an open session on Tuesday morning as it looks to acquire feedback on the change and potential solutions for the arising issues, which also include what will now be uneven waves at the NCAA Championship.
“We want everybody to have that time together to give us their input,” said Hurlbut, who is also the director of athletics at Fairleigh Dickinson.
Hurlbut spoke with GolfChannel.com on Saturday morning and said the committee initially requested in late February an increase to 30 teams, but that expansion request was struck down this summer by the COC because it did not satisfy the “equitable championship access percentage,” which is determined by sport sponsorship.
There are currently 298 D-I men's golf programs compared to 269 for the women.
“We wanted to get to 30,” he said. “… but the percentages didn’t match up, so [the COC] said no.”
After the initial denial, the committee decided to ask for 27, or 10% of the total sponsored women’s programs. That received a stamp of approval.
The committee, Hurlbut said, was aware of the challenges that the decision to only add three teams created. “But we figured having 18 more opportunities outweighed any challenges that we might have in determining regionals assignments and then who ultimately goes on to the final,” he added.
And, as Hurlbut adds, that doesn’t mean that the committee won’t keep trying for 30 down the road.
“We’re going to use every avenue that we can,” he said.
Perhaps one argument that committee can lean on is one that was laid out by Golfweek’s Beth Ann Nichols, who called for an increase to 30 teams at the NCAA Women’s Championship back in May. As Nichols points out, “The women are being penalized twice for having fewer programs.”
The first time comes at regionals, when the men and women each send 27% of their total representation to the postseason – 81 men’s teams and 72 women’s teams. Regionals, Nichols argues, is like the first round of the NCAA Tournament in basketball or, in an even better comparison, like the first round of the NCAA soccer postseason, which sees 48 men’s teams and 64 women’s teams play the first round before 32 each advance to the next round.
In golf, regionals are essentially the first round of the sport’s NCAA Tournament, with the NCAA Championship serving as the final two rounds, first stroke play and then eight-team match play for both the men and women.
So, while coaches are appreciative of the added opportunity, every coach GolfChannel.com talked to wished that the changes could go further, all the way to 30.
“I’m happy to see the field extended to meet the same percentage of participation as the NCAA Men’s Championship,” USC head coach Justin Silverstein said. “While the changes to regionals are a little funky, I think it’s a positive outcome. But I also believe we should continue to explore the option of having 30 teams play.”
Added Robertson: “Hopefully we will eventually get to 30 teams, but until then, the biggest hurdle we’re going to have to overcome is how we structure regionals.”
And until then, the postseason format will continue to be a little funky.