FRANKLIN, Tenn. – This is the story of the player who didn’t let the big one get away, the player who almost gave her game away, and the one who made a big mistake but didn’t let it get her down, stories that all came together during the dramatic final round of the NCAA Division I Women’s Golf Championship.
Alabama’s Brooke Pancake didn’t get the entire fairytale ending, but she was more than happy with the half she got.
As Pancake, a senior from Chattanooga, Tenn., scrapped and scraped her way through Friday’s final round at the Vanderbilt Legends Club North Course, a quick glance at the scoreboard let her know the individual championship had probably slipped out of her grasp.
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But the title she wanted most, the team championship, was quite literally in her hands.
She wanted to go for the green with her second shot on the 464-yard, par-5 18th hole, but Alabama coach Mic Potter talked her out of it.
“He said, ‘Maybe you can lay it up,’” Pancake recalled. “I thought maybe that was a hint that it was closer than I was expecting.”
As it turned out, Alabama led Southern California by one slim stroke after the Crimson Tide’s Jennifer Kirby double bogeyed and the Trojans’ Inah Park birdied in the second-to-last group.
Pancake pulled her second shot into the trees but was able to maneuver a wedge shot onto the firm green, her ball rolling 60 feet away from the cup to the back right corner of the putting surface. Her first put grazed the cup but slid five feet past.
“When I went to mark the ball I could see my teammates crying and holding their mouths,” Pancake said. “I was like, ‘Oh, my goodness.’”
All of Pancake’s golfing life was wrapped up in that one place, in that one moment. It was just across the lake from 18 where as a 10-year-old her grandparents dropped her off for a week-long camp at Golf House Tennessee. It’s where her love affair with the game began. It’s probably where she first dreamed of making a crucial putt to win a big tournament.
With family, friends and trembling teammates looking on, Pancake drained the putt, and gave Alabama its first NCAA women’s golf championship in just its eighth all-time appearance.
“It means the world,” she said. “It’s amazing to end my college career like this.”
Pancake also finished second individually, four strokes behind Oklahoma sophomore Chirapat Jao-Javanil.
If a frustrated young Ja – the nickname given to her by her mother – had let emotions sway her more strongly, Pancake might have been the individual champion, too. That’s because at back home in Thailand at 14 she thought of giving up the game.
“I feel sometimes the Asian stereotype of parents being hard on you when you practice and everything else, there’s some truth to it,” said Jao-Javanil, laying her feelings on table in front of her at the post-tournament news conference.
“I did come to the point where I battled family more, and when golf and the pressure and not winning is affecting the family mood so much, then I don’t really want to play it.”
Not long after, Ja’s mother sent her to a junior meditation course in her native country.
“It was where you could kind of learn about yourself,” she said. “It was kind of uncomfortable, but it benefited me, about not thinking about things I shouldn’t, things I can adapt to golf.
“It kind of calmed me down. Meditation helps me concentrate during the whole four or five hours of a round.”
Jao-Javanil played steadily, patiently and brilliantly during her four days on the demanding championship layout, turning in rounds of 69-73-70-70 for a 6-under par total of 282, four strokes clear of Pancake.
The best part of it was Jao-Javanil clearly seemed to be enjoying herself, even when The Spinners’ “Working My Way Back to You” started pouring inexplicably from the clubhouse speakers during the middle of her news conference.
“This is awesome,” Ja said.
Indeed it was.
A year earlier, when her team finished fourth to UCLA in Bryan, Texas, Virginia coach Kim Lewellen didn’t know she needed to stick around to pick up a trophy for her team.
This time she did, and the fourth-place prize for her Cavaliers was much more poignant.
It looked as though Virginia, fueled by a 66 from sophomore Portland Rosen, would lead Alabama after Tuesday’s first round with a 282. That was until sophomore Elizabeth Brightwell realized she signed for a 71 instead of a 72 as she actually shot.
Brightwell was disqualified for that round, meaning she was able to continue playing but that she could not compete for the individual title. Worse than that, instead of counting her 72, Virginia had to count a 77 from freshman Briana Mao, putting the Cavaliers at even par 288 and two strokes back of Alabama.
They were strokes Virginia never made up, but the Cavaliers didn’t quit. Neither did Brightwell. Virginia counted her score each of the next three days toward its team total of 1,175, just four strokes back of Alabama and two behind third-place LSU.
Had Brightwell’s score counted Tuesday, Virginia might have wound up a stroke ahead of Alabama, though there of course is no way to tell how the Cavaliers or Crimson Tide would have reacted in that scenario.
For Lewellen, it was enough that her team and her young player hung in there. Brightwell’s four-day total of 5 over 293 would have been good enough to tie for 14th.
“We were underdogs here,” Lewellen said. “We came in ranked 27th. We have no seniors.
“I think we has some misfortune that first day, but it lit a fire in our bellies. Especially for Elizabeth. That’s probably the best she played all year.”
And at this year’s championship, it may have been the best story of all.