NCAA WOMEN’S GOLF CHAMPIONSHIPS:

Time to tee it up: Nation’s best out to slay the Blessings

By: Tom Murphy
Published: Friday, May 17, 2019
Arkansas golfer Maria Fassi works from the bunker on the seventh hole while head coach Shauna Taylor watches from behind during the practice round of the NCAA Women's Golf Championships at Blessings Golf Club in Johnson on Thursday, May 16, 2019.
Photo by David Gottschalk
Arkansas golfer Maria Fassi works from the bunker on the seventh hole while head coach Shauna Taylor watches from behind during the practice round of the NCAA Women's Golf Championships at Blessings Golf Club in Johnson on Thursday, May 16, 2019.

FAYETTEVILLE -- The University of Arkansas hopes to use a distinct home-course advantage to claim the school's first national championship in women's golf.

The No. 10 Razorbacks will tee off today at 1:01 p.m. with SEC rivals No. 11 Florida and No. 13 Auburn at the Blessings Golf Club in west Fayetteville in pursuit of the national title. Tee times start at 7:15 a.m. on Nos. 1 and 10. No. 1 Southern California will go off No. 10 at 11:55 a.m., and defending champion and No. 4 Arizona is scheduled to tee off on No. 1 at 11:55 a.m.

[THE HOLE STORY: Hole-by-hole breakdown of The Blessings explains what golfers have ahead of them]

The Razorbacks, who came up one stroke shy of a playoff to make the final eight at Karsten Creek in Stillwater, Okla., last year, are coming off a fourth-place finish at the NCAA Cle Elum Regional east of Seattle.

"Two years ago, when we found out about the opportunity to host this national championship ... we immediately got to work on our plan and how we are going to handle this week and what we need to do to give ourselves the best chance to win," Arkansas Coach Shauna Taylor said.

"It's a coach's dream to be able to have the biggest event of the year in your backyard ... [and] not only the home-course advantage knowing the golf course, but also having our people in the Razorback nation around us and having our families and friends."

The 24-team field will be reduced to 15 teams after three rounds, and 8 teams after four rounds. Match play among the final eight starts at 7 a.m. Tuesday, and the championship match is scheduled for Wednesday at 2:25 p.m.

The defending-champion Wildcats showed last year that it's anybody's title once match play starts. Arizona tied for the eighth spot before advancing in a two-hole playoff, then notched three victories in match play, capped by a 3-2 victory over No. 2 Alabama.

Arizona Coach Laura Ianello said she thinks this tournament's winner will have to be tidy in the short game.

"It's definitely a championship-style course," Ianello said. "The greens are fast and firm. I think if the wind picks up it's going to be insanely difficult, but very fair, just like an NCAA championship should be."

John H. Tyson, the founder of Blessings, has arranged for Tyson Foods to underwrite the cost of admission for all spectators throughout the women's and the men's championships.

Blessings will play as a 6,473-yard, par-73 course for the women.

"It's gorgeous, but it's a challenge," said former Arkansas golfer Lisa Cornwell, who will work the event for the Golf Channel.

The Razorbacks, led by SEC medalist Maria Fassi, the world's No. 2 amateur behind Wake Forest's Jennifer Kupcho, are considered one of a handful of favorites along with Southern California, No. 2 Texas, No. 3 Duke, Arizona, No. 5 Kent State and others.

The Trojans were runaway winners at the NCAA Cle Elum Regional outside of Seattle by 15 strokes, led by medalist Jennifer Chang.

"We're a confident bunch," first-year USC Coach Justin Silverstein said. "We know any time we tee it up with this group we have a chance, but we've got to take care of business.

"The course is big and mean. It's a lot to take in in one day. We were out there for almost seven hours, which is a little tough to keep them concentrating for that long."

The other regional winners were Vanderbilt at the Auburn Regional, Kent State at the East Lansing Regional and Texas at the Norman Regional.

Texas Coach Ryan Murphy said his team is coming in with momentum with five tournament victories.

"That's a lot of golf course to figure out in one day," Murphy said after the practice round. "We did the best we could. That's a big course and there's a lot to those greens."

Both USC and Kent State have seven tournament wins to lead the field.

Kupcho is here with her Demon Deacon teammates to defend her title, along with eight other players who finished in the top 25 at Karsten Creek. Kupcho has a chance to become the first two-time NCAA women's champion.

Stanford's Andrea Lee and Arizona's Bianca Pagdanganan tied for second, UCLA's Mariel Galdiano tied for seventh, USC's Jennifer Chang and Kent State's Pimnipa Panthong tied for 13th, UCLA's Patty Tavatanakit tied for 19th, and Arkansas' Dylan Kim and Stanford's Albane Valenzuela tied for 21st.

Kupcho said she's confident in her ability to attack a course after one practice round.

Fans would probably like to see a final-round duel between Kupcho and Fassi, who finished in that order at the inaugural Augusta Women's National last month. Kupcho eagled No. 13 and birdied three of her last four holes to take a four-stroke victory as the first women's champion at the home of the Masters in Augusta. Ga.

"Coming in as the defending champ and coming in with my team, I think I'm just really excited to get out there and play one last event representing my school," Kupcho said. "Hopefully we make it to match play and see what we can do."

Fassi said the Razorbacks felt the pressure to qualify for nationals while playing out of their element in Washington two weeks ago.

"Regionals was really stressing for all of us just because we had that little extra pressure," Fassi said. "So we were really all relieved after we got through regionals. Even though we might not have played our very best golf, we did what we had to do. ... Our team's chemistry is probably as good as it's ever been."

Sports on 05/17/2019

Where Blessings Golf Club, Fayetteville

When Today through Wednesday

Course Par 73, 6,473 yards

Format Three rounds of stroke play, field cut to 15 teams; fourth round of stroke play on Monday to determine medalist and field cut to eight teams for match play

Arkansas tee time No. 1 tee, 1:01 p.m. (with Auburn and Florida)

Projected Arkansas lineup (stroke average) Maria Fassi (72.08), Kaylee Benton (72.22), Dylan Kim (73.3), Brooke Matthews (73.0), Ximena Gonzalez (74.56)

Noteworthy The Blessings will host its first national championship after holding the SEC women’s championships in 2012 and an NCAA men’s regional in 2013. ... This will be the third women’s championship in the region in the past six years, joining Tulsa in 2014 (won by Duke), and Stillwater, Okla., last year (Arizona). ... This is the fifth year of match play on the women’s side. ... The match play champions have been Stanford (3-2) over Baylor in 2015, Washington (3-2) over Stanford in 2016, Arizona State (3-1-1) over Northwestern in 2017 and Arizona (3-2) over Alabama in 2018.

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