Just two strokes separated the USC women’s golf team from capturing its second consecutive national championship last Friday, the third time in five years that the Women of Troy have finished in second place at the NCAA championships. Despite an individual national title from junior Doris Chen and a career-best final round from senior Sophia Popov, USC could not overtake Duke on the back nine at the Tulsa Country Club in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The top two squads finished well ahead of any challengers, with third-place UCLA finishing 15 strokes behind Duke at 25-over.
Following a come-from-behind win over Washington to capture the NCAA West Region, the Women of Troy seemed to be in prime position for another national title. Tulsa C.C. played more difficult than expected, however, and after one round the top of the field remained crowded. Oklahoma, which would go on to finish fourth, held a three-stroke lead over UCLA. Arizona State, Duke, and USC were locked in a three-way tie for third place, five strokes behind the Sooners. It was Chen who kept her team in contention throughout the opening round, shooting a 3-under 67, tying her with Stanford’s Lauren Kim and Denver’s Tonje Daffinrud for the early lead. None of Chen’s teammates were near par on the day, the closest being freshman Karen Chung at 4-over. Popov, the most experienced of the Women of Troy, limped to a 9-over.
USC’s hopes dimmed during Wednesday’s second round, as the team slipped into fourth place while the leaders surged ahead. Chung led the team at even par, followed by Chen at 2-over. Popov continued to struggle, carding another uncharacteristic 9-over, while sophomore Annie Park, the defending individual NCAA champion, added a second straight 5-over. Though no player shot below par, the Women of Troy collectively improved their performance by a slight margin, a good omen for the rest of the tournament.
Down nine strokes with just two rounds to play, USC had to make its move in the third round. The team received sparkling performances from Chen and sophomore Kyung Kim, who finished with scores of 2-under and 3-under, respectively. Popov returned to form in the penultimate round of her career, adding an even-par 70. Though Park continued to struggle, Chung’s 3-over gave the Women of Troy their first collective under-par round of the tournament. Going into Friday’s final 18 holes, the team sat six strokes back of Duke in second place, well within striking distance. After the round, USC head coach Andrea Gaston praised Popov’s resilience.
“I’m proud of the way she fought back today,” Gaston told usctrojans.com. “She’s been struggling in the postseason, but was able to put it behind her … She’s been such a huge part of our program the past four years and I’m happy to see her have a great round.”
The Women of Troy turned in their best performance of the NCAA championships in the fourth and final round, but, unfortunately for Gaston’s squad, so did the Blue Devils. It appeared that USC had fully recovered its championship form on the front nine, as the team took over the lead with under-par performances from Chen, Kim and Popov. Chen would slip up early in the back nine, however, allowing Duke to retake control. The Blue Devils’ Celine Boutier nearly took Chen’s national title out from under her during this stretch, but the Bradenton, Florida native was able to hold Boutier off by just two strokes. Even a heroic 4-under effort on the back nine from Popov would not be enough to secure the team championship, as Duke’s constant pressure proved too much for the Women of Troy.
Chen finished with a four-round total of 6-under, finishing the tournament as USC’s fifth individual national champion. She attributed her victory to an improvement in her short game.
“I was glad that my putts were finally falling,” Chen told USC Trojans. “The couple rounds before, I had stuck my shots close to the flag, but wasn’t able to putt in from a medium distance. I hit some great shots today and my putting was there, too. Most of all I kept myself composed and enjoyed the game.”
Kim’s 5-over was good for a 16th-place tie, while Chung tied for 28th at 8-over. Popov finished at 13-over, but was instrumental in her team’s comeback effort. Park seemed to find her stride in the final round, firing a 1-over, but it was too little, too late for the sophomore standout. The Levittown, New York native’s struggles were puzzling, especially coming on the heels of her second-place finish at the west regionals. Luckily for USC, Park has two more years to avenge this performance.
Gaston was quick to find a silver lining in her team’s loss. “Obviously I knew we had a deficit we had to make up,” she told usctrojans.com. “We hadn’t played the front 9 well all week and I knew we needed a fast start. They figured it out today and played incredibly well.”
Interestingly, 2014 marks the final season that the NCAA will use pure stroke play to determine its team national champion. Starting next year, the team title will be determined by a combination of a stroke play and match play event. Even more interesting? The 2015 NCAA Championships will be hosted in Chen’s hometown of Bradenton, Florida.