They’re accustomed to tests. You don’t make it through four years as a student at Wake Forest or Duke (or Auburn or Arizona for that matter) without being challenged. But Blessings Golf Club in Fayetteville, Ark., home of the 2019 men’s and women’s NCAA Championships, might be the toughest and truest test these student-athletes have ever seen.
Before we talk about NCAA champion Duke defeating Wake Forest Wednesday evening in a nail-biter of a final in which the decisive match went 2o holes, let’s revisit the stroke-play portion of the women’s championship.
“This golf course played as tough as I’ve seen it in a very long time, maybe ever, with 30-mile-an-hour winds … ” Arkansas Coach Shauna Taylor
The three rounds of stroke play (it was shortened from four rounds to three after one severe thunderstorm delay after another swept through Arkansas) were, to put it mildly, quite the test for the 24 teams that advanced to the NCAA Championships. The scoring average for each round on the Robert Trent Jones Jr. design were 79.93, 76.23 and 77.92, respectively.
That’s insanely high. As one former PGA Tour player (who also played on an NCAA Championship-winning team) said after the first round of stroke play, “On a regular day, Blessings is impossible. The aggregate scores of the 24 teams, taking four low out of five, is 527-over par. I genuinely feel sorry for the girls, their coaches and their teams.”
To put those numbers into perspective, the No. 1 player in the Golfstat rankings, Florida State freshman Frida Kinhult, had a scoring average of 70.66 for the 2018-19 season. Kinhult shot 77-73-73 at Blessings, more than four strokes per round higher than her season’s scoring average. And she played well.
Compare those numbers to last year’s women’s NCAA Championships at Karsten Creek Golf Club in Stillwater, Okla., home course of the Oklahoma State men’s and women’s teams.
The scoring averages for the four rounds of stroke play at Karsten Creek were 77.12, 75.66, 75.05 and 74.12, respectively.
Last year, scoring got better as the tournament went on. Players saw the course more. They adapted.
At Blessings, weather and wind were factors, and the course remained difficult from start to finish. Even Arkansas head coach Shauna Taylor, whose team plays at Blessings all year long, had never seen the place play that hard. Taylor has been at Arkansas 12 years.
“This golf course played as tough as I’ve seen it in a very long time, maybe ever, with 30-mile-an-hour winds, and to shoot what she shot was very impressive,” Taylor said.
The “she” Taylor referred to was Maria Fassi, an Arkansas senior who managed to tame the 6,397 yard, par-73 layout. Fassi, the runner-up at the recent Augusta National Women’s Amateur, finished her Arkansas career by winning the NCAA individual championship, shooting 8-under par and finishing four strokes ahead of Florida’s Sierra Brooks.
“I don’t know what is more impressive, the amount of birdies she has made or that she has not made any bogeys,” said Golf Channel analyst Kay Cockerill of Fassi after her bogey-free, 5-under 68 in the final round.
Fassi, of Pachuca, Mexico, had opened with rounds of 71-72. She made one eagle, 13 birdies, five bogeys and one double bogey on her team’s home course.
“I know the golf course and I knew it was going to be hard. I like these conditions,” said Fassi, who earned her LPGA card at the tour’s Q Series late last year and is expected to make her pro debut at next week’s U.S. Women’s Open. “They bring out the best in me. They keep me focused and in the present moment. Luckily it was a good week for me and I was able to come out on top this time.”
But even into match play, players struggled. Deep bunkers, forced carries, false fronts, greens with slopes you could see on television (which means that on the ground they look like the Andes) and penalty areas seemingly everywhere made this monster a blessing only when you finished.
“The key to this course is if you keep staying patient, opportunities and victories will come to you, so don’t chase after it, just let it come to you,” said Duke freshman Gina Kim after her semifinal victory to advance the Blue Devils to the championship match.
Patience is a blessing, something the Duke team was thinking all week long. Kim’s teammate, Ana Belac added: “A little bit of luck, and just being patient and making solid shots is what you need (at Blessings.)” Amen to that.
With the women’s championships complete, it will be interesting to see how the men play this one in their NCAA Championships, which start Friday. The course will be stretched to 7,550 yards. The lines won’t be the same. But the forecast looks sunny and warm.
Either way, one thing is certain: Blessings is a beast.
Maria Fassi of Arkansas survived Blessings Golf Club to win the NCAA individual women’s championship. Photo: Courtesy University of Arkansas
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