BRADENTON, Fla. -- As stressors go, the Concession Golf Club is groomed anxiety, challenging this week’s 2015 NCAA Division I Women’s Golf Championship hopefuls on every hole.
The consensus coming in was that the 520-acre course would be as tough an opponent as any of the 24 teams competing here. Consensus was realized following Friday’s opening round, with bogeys piling up like native pine straw and sand, and pars serving as notable triumphs.
Defending champion and fourth-ranked Duke finished a collective five-over-par 293 on the par-72, 6,468-yard layout. Top-ranked Southern California carded a 9-over-par 297. Second-ranked South Carolina fell to a 20-over-par 308. And on and on.
“The whole course, you’re going to be mentally worn out at the end of the day,” Duke head coach Dan Brooks said.Although competitors knew it coming in, seeing it reflected on the leaderboard affirmed Concession’s challenge.
Arizona head coach Laura Ianello, whose fifth-ranked Wildcats played a 12-over-par 300 in Friday’s first round, saw it in action on sophomore Wanasa Zhou’s opening shot on the 385-yard, par-4 first hole.
“A beautiful wedge shot into the green on No. 1,” Ianello said. “Hit this slope and rolled off the green like 20 yards. Impossible up and down. That just showed me right there, ‘Oh gosh this is going to be a long day.’ Because you can hit great shots out here and still get penalized.”
Zhou escaped with a bogey, and perhaps a microcosm of what the next five days hold as the Division I tournament unfolds in a new format. Friday’s round was the first of 54 holes of stroke play. Following Sunday’s third round of stroke play, the top 15 teams plus the top nine individuals all advance to another day of stroke play on Monday. Those results will determine the individual 72-hole champion. It also will cull the final eight teams for Tuesday’s seeded match-play round that will determine the final two teams competing head-to-head in the national-title match on Wednesday.
The Golf Channel will provide live coverage of the final three rounds.
“We didn’t have our best ball-striking day today and if you don’t strike the ball well on a tough golf course, it’s hard to score,” said LSU head coach Karen Bahnsen, whose sixth-ranked Tigers shot a 21-over-par 309. “So we feel like if we can just work out a couple little kinds, we’ll be okay. There’s so much golf to play.”
“You definitely have to be strategist out there,” said Duke’s top-ranked freshman Leona Maguire. “It makes you think. You can’t just up and hit it, whatever. And especially the fact it’s going to be such a long week. It requires a lot of patience out there.
Concession’s difficulty is deliberate, of course. It was a collaborative design by Jack Nicklaus and British golfing great Tony Jacklin, with the name playing off their famous 1969 Ryder Cup scene when Nicklaus conceded a putt to Jacklin on the final hole. The gesture, hailed for its sportsmanship, left the two teams tied; the only such finish in Ryder Cup history.
And, while Nicklaus and Jacklin may get along, serious golfers and the Concession course may not. It owns the USGA’s highest slope rating of 155 (a difficulty formula that includes using scratch golfers as a barometer). Per the course’s website, Nicklaus and Jacklin designed Concession with no parallel fairways. Each hole also runs in a different direction to take advantage of varying wind conditions.
Brooks cited “a lot of undulations.”
“There’s a lot of Donald Ross in this golf course,” he said of the legendary designer who apparently is Nicklaus’ design muse. “Nicklaus loves Donald Ross, so the ball spills off and you don’t know where it’s going to stop, and it’s down in a pit or a low area.”
There’s also a lot of thick live-oak and pine forests, lurking water and other hazards.
“It’s tough off the tee because they’ve done a really good job with the set-up, making sure that the bunkers are right in your landing zone,” Bahnsen said. “And if you’re in those bunkers, you’re going to pay for it. So it’s going to cost you a shot. And as far as hitting it, look at those greens. There’s a lot going on. And a lot of times, they’re hitting a little more longer club in so you’re not as accurate. The longer the club in, you’re not as accurate.”
Maguire, who carded a one-under-par 71, is OK with Concession’s contrariness.
“The golf course obviously is a little longer than we’ve been playing all year and the greens are pretty fast and slick as well,” she said. “It has the whole atmosphere of that big sort of style event, which is great. It’s always nice to play in big events.”
“I think you can learn your way around this golf course to play smart,” Ianello said. “And I think that’s going to be the key this week.”