ATLANTA, GEORGIA | Everyone loves rivalries. Cheers, jeers, face paint, deviled eggs and some good ol’ fashioned insults as fans invest in their school colors and bragging rights. We even give them names: the Red River Shootout (Texas–Oklahoma), the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party (Georgia–Florida) and the Moonshine Throwdown (Marshall–Western Kentucky).
We usually talk about them in football season. But if Michigan plays Ohio State in darts you can rest assured the feelings, the pressure, the enthusiasm will be the same.
That’s what made the finals of the East Lake Cup so much fun. You might not have known the names of any of the players in Atlanta this week but you knew the teams. And if you know college athletics, you knew the rivalries.
On the women’s side, the University of Southern California knocked off reigning NCAA champions Arizona in the semifinals to play for the title against conference rival Stanford, which got to the finals by beating Alabama.
It was the second consecutive year that Anne Walker’s Cardinal squad squared off against USC. And, just like last year, USC walked off with a thrilling win.
This one came down to the anchor match. After the first four matches split, 2-2, two-time All American Andrea Lee, a veteran of the U.S. Curtis Cup team and the seventh-ranked woman in the World Amateur Golf Ranking, looked like she would give Walker her first East Lake Cup win in four tries. Lee was heavily favored against USC sophomore Gabi Ruffels, an 18-year-old who played her first competitive round of golf in 2014.
But it was Ruffels who clawed back from 2 down through eight holes to beat Lee, 2 and 1, with gutsy pars on Nos. 16 and 17.
“I knew on 16 that it was going to come down to my match,” Ruffels said. “I’m so happy to do it for my team.”
If ever there was a match that favored Stanford, it was this one. But in the intangible arena of match play, bet on athletes. And Ruffels was among the most naturally gifted athletes in the field. Her mother, Anna-Maria Fernandez, was a tennis star at USC who won five WTA titles, reaching as high as 19th in the world rankings. Her father, Ray Ruffels, also was a top tennis player, winning eight singles titles and reaching No. 27 in the world.
The Southern Cal sophomore had been the top-ranked amateur tennis player in Australia, traveling the world and winning junior titles from the time she was 10. Then, as a teenager, she walked away from the game, saying that she didn’t love tennis enough to keep up the intensity. (Her older brother, Ryan, had done the same thing, putting away the racquet and picking up the golf clubs as a teenager. And it was Ryan, who plays on the PGA Tour Latinoamérica, inspired Gabi to give golf a whirl.)
Ruffels did it Wednesday with deft chipping and a stellar putting touch. After Lee pulled two tee shots into bunkers, Ruffels made one tremendous up-and-down par and then two-putted for another to give USC its third East Lake Cup title.
“I definitely have experience from tennis playing match play,” Ruffels said. “I’m so happy to get it done.”
As thrilled as the Trojans were with the victory, and as big as the matchup was between USC and Stanford, it’s a Saturday-afternoon nap compared to the rivalry that was reprised by the two teams that squared off in the men’s final.
When Alabama knocked off last year’s NCAA champions, Oklahoma State, to make it to the finals, their coach, Jay Seawell, was asked how you get up for another match after such an emotional win. “It’s Auburn,” Seawell said. “That’s all you have to say.”
There are college rivalries. Then there is Alabama–Auburn. Nothing tops it. Nothing comes close. There are restaurants west of Birmingham you cannot enter wearing an Auburn logo. And when you move to Foley from out of state, the first question you’re asked is: Will you support the Tigers or the Tide?
This was a rematch of last April’s SEC Championship, which Auburn won. The Tigers came out on top this time as well, beating the Crimson Tide in four of the five matches on Wednesday.
Trace Crowe put the first point on the board for Auburn when he beat Davis Riley, 2 and 1, after Riley missed a 4-footer on the 17th green. That’s the same margin that Crowe defeated Riley with in the SEC Championship.
“We were grinding out there and I just made a few more putts than he did,” Crowe said. “Sure, you’re playing for your school but you’re also playing for your other teammates, even though you don’t have your best stuff.
“Somehow Alabama brings out the best in us. The rivalry is unbelievable. Getting to play them in the finals here is unbelievable. It’s what everybody was hoping for. This really gives us a lot of confidence going into the spring, especially in match-play where we only play match-play in the SEC Championship and the NCAAs. So, I think it gives us a big boost to end the fall with a win.”
The East Lake Cup was contested without a title sponsor this year and the future of the event remains up in the air. But as Crowe aptly put it as he celebrated with his teammates: “I’ve watched the East Lake Cup on television before and I’ve wanted to be here and thought about winning it. It feels great. It really feels great to do it.”
Even in golf, that’s what college rivalries are all about.