Oct. 21, 2011
BY JOHN PAINTER
Tournament directors for Friday's first round of the Mercedes-Benz SEC/Pac-12 Challenge made it easy to find the hottest teams. They were all in the same group.
UCLA, Alabama and Tennessee played together and stand 1-2-3 atop one of the best collegiate golf fields this side of the NCAA Championship after 18 holes at Knoxville's Holston Hills Country Club.
UCLA lived up to its No. 1 national ranking with a 7-under-par 281 that pushed the Bruins three strokes clear of second-place Alabama (284), which entered as the nation's No. 6 team. Tennessee is a clear third at 3-over 291 despite not being able to post a quality fourth score from its five-player squad.
"I'm really pleased with how the girls did today," UT head coach Judi Pavón said. "They were nervous because they always want to play so well at home that they put pressure on themselves."
"But I told them Thursday night to act like it's just another day at Holston Hills. We're out here all the time. And I think they did that for the most part."
The Lady Vols were led by Sara Monberg's 2-under-par 70 that vaulted her to a tie for fourth place. Freshman AJ Newell was close behind at 71 and is tied for ninth, with Nathalie Mansson shooting 72 to tie for 15th. Erica Popson and Chessey Thomas posted 78s to close out the Tennessee scoring.
"It's a shame we couldn't have gotten around 75 for that fourth score, but I'm really pleased with Sara," Pavón said. "She's playing so well right now. And then A.J. was terrific. Even Nathalie, with this being just her fourth tournament round since July, for her to play really solid is good for her confidence."
Alabama's Stephanie Meadow and Vanderbilt's Lauren Stratton share the first-round individual lead at 4-under 68. UCLA's Stephanie Kono, the nation's No. 1-ranked player according to Golfstat.com, is third after a 3-under 69. Monberg and a group of four other golfers are tied at 2 under par.
Colorado and Washington (both 295) rounded out the top five on the team board.
The Pac-12 claimed the first-day lead in the conference challenge, with its 11 schools (Utah doesn't field a women's golf team) combining for an average team score of 299.1. The SEC's dozen entries averaged 301.5.
"We were in such a nice group," she said. "One of us would hit a good shot and then another one would hit a good shot. You know how you like it where everyone is cheering each other? I think that gives better shots and we were all feeding off each other."
Monberg's scorecard read 35-35, but she said it was close to being a few strokes better.
"I hit a lot of really good putts that were just a few inches short. I just stayed focused and hit some good close shots that gave me opportunities to make a few birdies. The key is to hit the fairway and hit the right spot on the green."
Newell rallied from a pair of early bogeys to match her collegiate low round of 71 and settle in a tie for ninth place. She was 2 over through five holes before playing the final 13 in 3 under par.
"I was 2 over pretty quickly but I know I can play well at this course and I just try not to think about my score," she said. "I kept fighting and got it back to 1 over at the turn. Then I made a birdie at No. 11 to get to even par and it was just like starting another round again.
"I just tried to keep hitting good shots and my putting felt really good today, so that was helpful."
"I had some stupid bogeys today," Mansson said. "I missed a 2-footer for par at No. 10 and I was above the hole on 14, which you are not supposed to be at all. Three-putted that one too."
Mansson missed the fall's first two tournaments recovering from a partially-torn ligament in her wrist, so Friday's effort offered plenty of encouragement.
"I'm happy," she said. "I'm still coming back from my injury and still a little bit rusty, but I'm fine."
Thomas shot 78 and was bitten by the par-3s Friday. The sophomore was 5 over par on those four holes and 1 over on the 14 others.
"All things considered it wasn't a terrible day, but if you take away a couple bad swings it's an OK day," Thomas said. "I have to take it with a grain of salt. The greens are tougher than they have been. They are firm and running quick."
Popson showed the late-round effects of her injured thumb. The defending Mercedes-Benz champion birdied twice in the first five holes but was 7 over the rest of the way en route to her 78.
"It's not very good but I've got to play, so it is what it is," said Popson, who is having surgery after this weekend's tournament. "It just hurts to grip my club.
"The start of the round is definitely better than the finish. Every time I hit it in the rough, I'm not doing myself any favors. I'll spend a while on it tonight and get a lot of treatment. Hopefully, it will feel better tomorrow."
Thomas and Popson are tied for 78th place in the 120-player field.
"I know Erica is disappointed, but she'll be better," Pavón said. "She hit some careless shots that put her in bunkers and put her in the rough, and that's going to make it hurt even worse. She just needs to grind it out. She's got 72 more full swings the next two days until she has surgery, and she can do it. She just needs to have that attitude.
"I do like where we are. The three that played well today will, hopefully, go out and continue to play well and we'll need Chessey or Erica to step up and give us a good score tomorrow."
Saturday's second round begins at 9:30 a.m., with the Lady Vols teeing off at 11:10 on the No. 1 tee alongside UCLA, Alabama and Washington. The weather forecast calls for sunny skies and a high of 67, with very light winds. Live scoring is available on UTLadyVols.com, via Golfstat.com.
"I hate when that happens but it does happen," Pavón said of Rohrback not being in the lineup. "And I knew she was going to play well today. She doesn't want to be out of the lineup - it ticks her off. So having the opportunity to be able to play as an individual is great and she's determined. That was great for her."
Rohrback was even for the front nine and then posted consecutive birdies at Nos. 14 and 15. The birdie at the par-3 14th was especially notable since the 178-yard hole played as Friday's toughest on the golf course, averaging more than a half-stroke over par (+0.59).
"That was a big slider that just hit the back of the hole," she said with a smile. "I just played really steady and hit a lot of greens. "I think I hit every fairway except the last one, and that's really important for me."
"I made a lot of 5- and 6-footers, which is where I've struggling in my past two tournaments. I've finally gotten that figured out. If I can shoot around par the next two days I will be very, very happy."
Knoxville native Leigh Henderson was UT's other individual. The junior from Webb School shot 76 with three birdies and is tied for 55th place.
"I'm disappointed in the par-5s," Henderson said. "I was 2 over, so that's not good and that's what really got me today. I didn't make a ton of putts but other than that I was pretty solid."
"I've only been here two months now but already I love this course," said the freshman Newell. "It doesn't look intimidating at all but it is if you hit it in the rough - and the greens are really tough. You've got to play well out here."
Rohrback was all smiles after her round, and not only because of the 1-under 71 she posted.
"I absolutely love this course," she said. "It's very traditional and I love Donald Ross courses. The greens are tough but if you put it in the right places you can make putts."
And Monberg appreciates the community feeling she gets while player her rounds.
"It's so beautiful and you see everyone around," she said. "I love how you feel like you are around everyone else (on the team) when you are playing, so it's nice."
"It wasn't too bad," UT's Thomas said. "The course plays pretty quick and there weren't any major logjams out there. A few times girls were picking up their bags after three tee shots so it was a little confusing for everyone. But I thought the pace of play was just fine today.
"It's just hard to believe you can get this many good golf teams on one course this weekend."
|T-9.||Southern California||298 (+10)|
|T-12.||Arizona State||300 (+12)|
|19.||South Carolina||310 (+22)|
|T-20.||Washington State||312 (+24)|
|22.||Oregon State||313 (+25)|
|23.||Mississippi State||317 (+29)|
|T-1.||Stephanie Meadow, Alabama||68 (-4)|
|T-1.||Lauren Stratton, Vanderbilt||68 (-4)|
|3.||Stephanie Kono, UCLA||69 (-3)|
|T-4.||Sara Monberg, TENNESSEE||70 (-2)|
|T-4.||Ashleigh Albrecht, Kentucky||70 (-2)|
|T-4.||Hannah Collier, Alabama||70 (-2)|
|T-4.||Erynne Lee, UCLA||70 (-2)|
|T-4.||Mariko Tumangan, Stanford||70 (-2)|
|T-4.||Sara Monberg||70 (-2)|
|T-9.||AJ Newell||71 (-1)|
|T-9.||Kaitlyn Rohrback *||71 (-1)|
|T-15.||Nathalie Mansson||72 (E)|
|T-55.||Leigh Henderson *||76 (+4)|
|T-78.||Erica Popson||78 (+6)|
|T-78.||Chessey Thomas||78 (+6)|
|*Competing as individual.|