Southern California cruises to third national title with record-breaking score
ATHENS, Ga. -- Southern Cal junior Sophia Popov remembered the pain of a year ago when the Trojans lost a five-stroke lead late in the final round of the NCAA Division I Women’s Golf Championship, falling to Alabama in the end by a single stroke.
So she and her teammates took nothing for granted even after they built a big lead in the 2013 championships, keeping their wits about them and their cleated feet on the gas Friday as the Trojans rolled to the national championship by 21 shots against the rest of the field. Their 72-hole total of 1,133 strokes for 19-under-par obliterated the previous NCAA championship record set by UCLA in 2004 by a whopping 15 strokes and left no wiggle room for anyone to come back on them this time.
“I can say that last year was pretty brutal, losing by one shot,” said Popov, who finished tied for sixth with teammate Kyung Kim at 1-over par for the tournament. “We were five ahead going into No. 15 [in the final round] last year. We all looked at the leaderboard and said, ‘Oh, that’s amazing.’
“Suddenly we were one back and it was terrible. We were looking at each other saying, ‘I thought we all played amazing golf.’ This year, it was extremely comfortable. … We all just played really, really well. “
Southern California soared to the front of the field by shooting a NCAA championship record total of 276 – 12-under par – in the second round. Southern Cal’s lead at the end of that round was 12 strokes ahead of second-place Alabama at that point and Coach Andrea Gaston proclaimed that “no lead is big enough.”
Her players must have heard that and taken it to heart. They increased their lead to 17 strokes against second-place Duke at the end of the third round and kept pouring it on in the final round Friday. With five holes remaining, the team lead was 24 strokes and with four left it had swelled to 26 before settling to the final margin of 21.
“We had to take care of business out there,” Gaston said. “I think we started to enjoy the ride a little bit by maybe the 14th hole or so. I wanted to get through the back nine a little bit with a comfortable lead and we were able to do that. We just wanted to continue playing aggressively, the way we had the last few days.
“I saw so much fight in these girls. We had some tough holes, but then we would fight back to make some birdies.”
It was Southern California’s third NCAA title and first since 2008, with the other one coming in 2003. In none of the previous championship runs were the Trojans able to so completely dominate the rest of the field. Gaston, now in her 17th season, has been around for all of them.
Annie Park of Southern Cal became the seventh freshman in history to capture individual medalist honors, finishing at 10-under despite two bogeys and a double-bogey in three of her last four holes. By then, though, both the team and individual titles had pretty much been secured – thanks in large part to the seven birdies she registered earlier in the day. Then just for good measure, she birdied No. 18 as well.
“I didn’t have a clean card, but I made enough birdies to make up for the bad holes I had,” Park said.
Duke finished second in team play and also had the individual runner-up when senior Lindy Duncan put on a charge at the end to finish 4-under for the tournament.
“We played as well as they did for three of the days. They just had one day that was unbelievable. It was the lowest round ever shot in a NCAA championship,” Duke coach Dan Brooks said. “And for a team that solid to have a magical day like that, it’s going to be really hard to catch them. They’re a really, really solid team and my hat’s off to them.
“They’re extremely good. They’re not going to falter. When they have a day that good, the best you can do is play even with them – and you can’t make that ground up.”
Southern Cal had the lowest round in each of the four days and only Alabama posted even one round that was as good as any of the four the Trojans registered – and that came on the same day Southern Cal set the NCAA tournament scoring record for a round.
Still, it seemed then that it might be possible for the Crimson Tide to mount a charge like they did late in last year’s tournament.
But that charge never came from Alabama or anyone else, and meanwhile the Trojans kept on rolling. No one exemplified that more than Park, who even narrowly missed making a hole-in-one on the 159-yard, par-3 over water when her tee shot hit above and about three feet to the left of the hole and then rolled back and lipped out. She had to “settle” for another short birdie that put her 13-under at the time and 10 strokes in front of her nearest competitor at the time, Duke’s Celine Boutier.
It appeared that Park might be challenged on the final day by Alabama’s Stephanie Meadow and Mississippi State’s Ally McDonald, who had each come into the round at 7-under and only two off the pace being set by Park. But while Park went low Friday, both Meadow and McDonald blew up with Meadow shooting an 8-over-par 80 and McDonald hitting a 9-over 81.
“Conditions were extremely tough out there, but we battled,” McDonald said. “We weren’t able to pull in what we wanted to pull in, but it’s an experience we won’t forget. We’re going to hold our heads high, and we’re going to be back.”
Unfortunately for them, so will Southern California. Park and fellow freshman Kim were joined at the NCAA championship by juniors Popov and Morris and sophomore Doris Chen. All of them played exceptionally well in stretches and with the top three individual scores counting for the team each day, all contributed at least two rounds to the team total.
“I think the most impressive thing is that they each counted at least twice this week. That shows how deep our team is,” Gaston said. “[On Thursday] I heard the news that this is a group with a team grade-point-average of 3.51. These are true student-athletes who are serious about their school as well as their golf. I couldn’t be more proud of them.”