May 18, 2010

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Sidebar: Jessica Nogren

By Neil Amato
Special to NCAA.com

WILMINGTON, N.C. - Jennifer Song is not long for the amateur golf world, so she'd like to finish on a positive note. An eagle on the 18th hole Tuesday - yep, that was a good way to begin the closeout of her college career.

Song took a solid first step in helping Southern California to the first-day team lead, shooting 5-under-par 67 at the NCAA Division I Women's Golf Championships. The Trojans shot 6-under 282 as a team to lead by two strokes over Purdue. A year ago as a freshman, Song finished second in the individual competition, and Pac-10 rival Arizona State won the team title. The Sun Devils are still lurking, but USC is in the lead.

Song, Arizona State's Jennifer Johnson and Purdue's Maude-Aimee LeBlanc shared the first-round lead. USC's Cyna Rodriguez, UCLA's Brianna Do and Duke's Kim Donovan are second at 4-under 68.

The Trojans played the NCAA Fall Preview on this same course, against many of these same teams, in October. They finished 16th of 18 teams.

But the Trojans were not at full strength. Song played that weekend in an LPGA event on a sponsor's exemption. Rodriguez was left on the West Coast because of a coach's decision.

"I was thinking about that," USC coach Andrea Gaston said. "The two that weren't here just went out and played beautifully."

Song more than made up for her one bogey, on the third hole, with a solid approach shot on the course's easiest hole, the par-5, 445-yard 18th. After a strong drive, she used a 6-iron from about 175 yards to stick the ball 18 inches from the hole.

Song will play for U.S. team in the Curtis Cup next month before turning pro. After a strong 2009 summer, when she won two major USGA titles and was the low amateur at the U.S. Open, the timing seems right.

"This tournament is very special for me because this is going to be my last college event," Song said. "Definitely I'm going to get really emotional. Being able to be with my team is one of the best memories I'll have in my life." Song said she was inspired by a surprise message from her coach in Korea, Robin Symes. She was concerned about her swing and sent her father a video of it. He sent it to Symes, who analyzed it and gave Song a few points to remember. "He just basically told me to get back to my fundamentals and my posture," Song said. "After hearing his voice and his lessons, it really helped me out a lot."

LeBlanc is helping to keep Purdue close, and had a six-hole, four-birdie stretch in the middle of her round. "It was a good day; putting was great," LeBlanc said. "I didn't miss any putt inside 10 feet, I don't think." Arizona State's Johnson came back strong, with four birdies in her final six holes of the day. She is hoping to lead the defending champion Sun Devils to a Division I record eighth team title.

Arizona State is tied for third at even-par 288 with top-ranked UCLA and Duke, winner of five NCAA crowns since 1999. The Blue Devils hung around all afternoon, getting a boost from Kim Donovan, who was 5-under on her final 12 holes. Duke won the Fall Preview with a final-round comeback, so coach Dan Brooks has to like his team's position after the first of four rounds.

Southern Cal's Gaston will take the first-day lead. She's doing her best to not to dwell on Song and senior Belen Mozo playing their last rounds for the Trojans.

"I try not to put too much emotion in it," Gaston said. "I want to keep them very present and looking at the shot in front of them. That (emotion) can all come if we are where we want to be on the last day."