Park

ATHENS, Ga. -- Southern California feasted on the University of Georgia Golf Course and the rest of the competition in the NCAA Division I Women’s Championship on Wednesday. When all the plates and greens had been cleared, USC had posted a NCAA championship record total of 276 that was 12-under par, bettering a record that had stood since 1999 when Arizona State posted an 11-under 277 at University Ridge Golf Course in Madison, Wis.

USC also held a seemingly comfortable 12-shot lead against defending national champion Alabama at the halfway point of the 72-hole tournament. The two-day total for USC was 560, or 16-under. Alabama (572, minus-4) and Duke (575, minus-1) were the only other schools under par after the first two days.

“Maybe it was the steak dinner we had [Tuesday] night,” head coach Andrea Gaston joked afterward.

To tell the truth, Gaston wasn’t even aware her team had even been close to erasing a 14-year-old record until a tournament official informed her that the deed was done shortly after Annie Park, the last Trojan golfer left on the course, had walked off her final hole. Park, incidentally, carded a 5-under-par 67 that tied individual tournament leader Stephanie Meadow of Alabama for low round of the day.

“I wasn’t even really thinking about it,” Gaston said. “But no lead is big enough. We obviously have a lot of momentum because we got off to a really good start. All you can do is just keep trying to increase the lead and hopefully hit as many good shots as you can out there.

“I feel like this front nine [on which USC finished its Wednesday rounds] is a little more difficult, so I knew coming into it that it was critical for us to try to just hold onto what we had. We gave away a couple shots, but I’m still very excited. All we can do now is be patient and enjoy this moment, and know that [Thursday] is going to be another day.”

There is truth to Gaston’s comment that no lead is big enough. Coach Mic Potter of Alabama noted how last year, his team held a 15-shot lead with four holes to go in the third round of the championship. It was trimmed to two by the end of that round and USC actually caught Alabama and surged ahead by as many as five strokes in the final round before Alabama rallied to take the title.

Potter added that his team’s familiarity with the course, having played it during Southeastern Conference events, could help stage a comeback.

“What they shot [Wednesday], we’re very capable of doing. We just have to come out here and do it,” Potter said. “I think now we have to come out and be a little more aggressive. We’ve got to let it go and free some things up, make some birdie putts. We’re only converting those five, six and seven-footers. We need to make some longer ones and get a break here or there. But we’ve shot 10-under here before, so we’re fully capable of putting a low round up there.”

Having played in the afternoon during the first round, Trojan players said they assumed playing in the morning for the second might give them a bit of an advantage. But it proved even more than they had hoped for, according to Rachel Morris, who shot a 2-under 70 and is at 3-under for the tournament.

“I thought the course wouldn’t have rolled out as much, but it was actually pretty firm and I found I was hitting it a little farther even,” Morris said. “The main difference was just that the greens were a lot smoother for us on the front and the lines were really true. Everything was falling on the front nine and we just all came out ready to make birdies.”

Whatever advantage the Trojans may have discovered by playing in the morning Wednesday, it wasn’t completely shared by the other teams. Alabama and Duke, for example, also played the first two rounds on the same schedule.

Gaston said it mostly came down to not only sinking birdie putts, but also hitting approach shots that consistently made that possible. On many of the course’s greens, severe slopes penalize players who are off the mark even slightly.

“We hit good shots, and I think that our players started to do a better job of figuring out the speed on the greens,” Gaston said. “It’s all about hitting it into the right quadrant of the green so that you do have an opportunity to make the birdies. We putted extremely well. You have to make putts out here.

“And of course we had a couple really close putts for birdies – and you have to love those easy ones when you can get them. We’re just trying to figure out places where we can make birdies and hole locations where we can go at it.”

There was a stretch Wednesday morning when the birdies were coming so quickly that even the USC players couldn’t keep track of how low the team was going.

“I saw the leaderboard at different points. We made a big surge and I knew it wasn’t all coming from me. We kind of went crazy out there,” Sophia Popov said.

Popov also shot a 2-under 70 and is tied for the tournament with teammate Morris and several others at 3-under.

Gaston said the key to building on Wednesday’s record-breaking round will be to continue going on the attack in Thursday’s third round.

“For me, no lead is big enough,” Gaston said. “We can’t protect the lead. We have to go back out and play our best golf. We have to keep everybody patient and in the moment.”