BRYAN, Texas – John Saffle’s eyes light up and his southern accent sports a little bit more drawl when he talks about Traditions Club, the home course for Texas A&M and the site for this week’s Division I Women’s Golf National Championship.
“The course is so natural,” said Saffle, the course’s Director of Golf and a former member of the Texas A&M men’s golf team in the mid-80s. “We didn’t move a lot of dirt to design the golf course. We used the terrain. There’s a lot of elevation and dips and things. So we didn’t have to change a whole lot.”
To that end, the course this 24-team, six-individual field will see beginning Wednesday will be largely unchanged from the course that the Texas A&M women’s golf team deals with during the season.
“We’ve added a lot of flowers and things, but we haven’t changed anything as far as playability.”
Saffle says that alone produces enough of a challenge.
“It’s not long, but it plays long. Does that make sense?” Saffle asked with a grin. “Jack Nicklaus designed the course, so he’s really good at putting bunkers where you wish they weren’t. There’s a lot of obstacles on the course that make up for the fact that the fairways are a little bit generous.”
And there’s also a little “gift” that Mother Nature provided late last week.
“We finally got some rain, so that made the rough come up a little bit. We hadn’t had any rain since January, so we’ll have a little rough.”
Where the course really gets tough, Saffle says, is around the greens.
“Missing the green in the right spot in important, because if you miss it in the wrong spot, it’s pretty penal. Again, that’s Nicklaus’ design. He’s a placement guy.”
Golf courses usually have one hole where reputations are made – or ruined. Saffle says at Traditions Club, it’s actually four.
“Any of the holes from 15 through 18 can turn the tournament around,” he said. “[No.] 15 is a usually a par-5 but they’re going to play it as a par-4, so it’s going to be a long par-4.”
To be exact, No. 15 will play 384 yards. Life doesn’t get any easier from there. The par-3 16th is a par-3 with water in play with a narrow green and ominous bunkering on both sides.
“That’s a game changer right there,” Saffle said.
Saffle calls the par-4 17th “just a beatdown.” It features a large tree in the middle of the fairway playing to a double green that’s shared with the par-5 eighth over a ravine with the ever-present bunkers.
The home hole, the par-5 18th, provides an interesting, if not nail-biting conclusion. At just 447 yards, it’s “risk-reward.” Players will have to decide whether to try and hit the green in two and risk a mistake, or play it safe and lay-up.
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The whole field may be chasing Tennesse junior Erica Popson. Popson, a native of Florida, won the Bryan National Collegiate at Traditions Club in late March. She followed that up with victories at the Rebel Intercollegiate, the SEC Championships and the NCAA West Regional. She opened the SEC’s with a 66.
“I’ve never seen anybody do what she’s doing in college golf,” said Tennessee head coach Judi Pavon. “She’s been doing everything well, and she’s staying confident and positive. She’s hitting the ball great. I’m really proud of her and looking forward to see what she can do at Nationals.”
The nation’s top-ranked female, Georgia’s Marta Silva Zamora, is in the field as a single. Through 29 rounds this season, she sits at 14 under par.
“Marta is wired differently than just about everyone else,” Georgia head coach Kelly Hester said. “She’s the type of person that psychologists write books about.”
After her individual win at the ACC Championships, Cheyenne Woods got a lot of attention. Woods, the niece of Tiger Woods, sits 23rd in the Golfweek/Sagarin individual rankings with a stroke average of 71.89.
On the team side, top-ranked USC heads to Bryan riding a two-tournament win streak. The Women of Troy won the Pac-10 Conference championship, then ran away with the NCAA West Regional, besting the field by 10 strokes.
Second-ranked UCLA makes its 11th consecutive appearance in the tournament after a five-win campaign and third-ranked Alabama won the NCAA East Regional to qualify for its sixth consecutive NCAA tournament.
Two schools are making their first NCAA tournament appearance. Coastal Carolina became the first team in school and Big South Conference history to qualify for the tournament after the Chanticleers finished fourth at the NCAA East Regional on May 7th. They are led by sophomore Jessica Alexander, who was the medalist at the Big South Tournament and she tied for third at the East Regional.
Notre Dame also makes its first NCAA appearance this week after finishing fifth in the Central Regional at the Warren Golf Course in South Bend, their home course. Freshman Nicole Zhang led the Irish in that event, finishing eighth individually.