Seven SEC teams populate field in women's NCAA finals at Vanderbilt

Tiffany Lua
Getty Images
Tiffany Lua and her UCLA teammates won a tournament earlier this season at Vanderbilt, and are comfortable with the host course.
By
Teresa Walker
Associated Press

Series: Other Tour

FRANKLIN, Tenn. -- Another NCAA championship is stocked with Southeastern Conference teams looking to add one more title to the league's crowded trophy case.

The NCAA women's golf championship begins Tuesday at the Legends Club, the home course for Vanderbilt -- one of seven SEC teams looking to finish the week lifting the trophy. LSU, Tennessee, Arkansas, Alabama, South Carolina and Florida also are here, giving the SEC more teams than any other conference.

WOMEN'S FINALS

For complete coverage of the NCAA Division I Women's Finals, go to NCAA.com.

''We want to win, and there's no doubt about that,'' Vanderbilt Coach Greg Allen said Monday after his Commodores played nine practice holes. ''We keep telling them what they accomplished last week is by far more pressure than they're going to feel this week.''

His players were on the cut line after 18 holes only to rebound and qualify for the championship by finishing second at the Central Regional at Ohio State. They also have senior Marina Alex, a two-time SEC player of the year, as they host the first Division I national championship ever played in middle Tennessee.

''There's nothing like this,'' Alex said. ''We've never hosted a regional or an SEC championship, and this is bigger than both of them so it's quite an experience.''

The Commodores have plenty of company with 24 total teams competing for the national title led by defending champion UCLA. The Bruins have been the top-ranked program for the longest stretch under coach Carrie Forsyth, and their seven wins in 11 tournaments is best in the country. They finished no worse than runner-up in three other events, and Forsyth has three players ranked among the top 15 by either GolfStat or GolfWeek.

''Last year was last year,'' Forsyth said. ''We have a couple different players. The golf course is different than the course we played last year. Nothing ever stays the same in golf so you've got to do the best you can on every course with any lineup.''

Among the tournaments UCLA won was on this course last September in Vanderbilt's annual Mason Rudolph Fall Preview by six strokes over Alabama. Forsyth and her Bruins are trying to repeat as champs, something that hasn't been done since Duke won three straight titles between 2005 and 2007.

''We're really comfortable with the golf course, with the facility,'' UCLA junior Tiffany Lua said. ''We love the greens. Definitely winning the Fall Preview gave us a confidence boost. We're just looking to go out there to play one shot at a time.''

They better because Purdue, the 2010 champ, is in the field along with Duke led by Lindy Duncan, the nation's top-ranked player. There's also LSU, a program that finished third a year ago and tied top-seeded UCLA at the West Regional with seeding going into the event the tiebreaker. The Lady Tigers are led by Austin Ernst, who also is defending the individual championship she won as a freshman.

''It's all about peaking at the right time of the year, and I feel like they're in a good place,'' LSU Coach Karen Bahnsen said. ''They're hitting the ball really good, and it's just a matter of going out and playing this golf course really smart.''

Ernst's win in this event a year ago set off quite a run. She won the Cougar Classic last fall, made the cut at the Kraft Nabisco Championship earlier this year and was named to the Curtis Cup team. Ernst, whose father Mark is a PGA Professional in South Carolina, also is the highest-rated American amateur and No. 7 in the world.

Tying UCLA at the West Regional has pumped up not only Ernst's confidence but her teammates as well.

''We know our capabilities,'' Ernst said. ''We know we can win. Coming off of last year we got third. We were right here. I feel like this team this year, we're even better so I feel like we have a really good chance. And obviously tied for the lead last week we had a really good chance to pull it out ... We had a good chance to win it outright. I think we're about as confident as we're going to get.''

The North Course hosted an LPGA Tour event for a few years, but this week the course will play 6,377 yards with a couple changes. No. 4 will be played as a long par 4 this week instead of a par 5, while No. 9 will play about 455 yards as a par 5. Vanderbilt switched out the greens from bent grass to Bermuda dwarf grass last year, something Allen said the Commodores hope to use that local knowledge to their advantage.

But the grass is very similar to what LSU has on its own greens at the Lady Tigers' home course.

''It's a good championship layout, and I think it's a good test,'' Bahnsen said.