The Tulane women’s golfers already have made program history by qualifying for nationals in three consecutive years. They hope to use that experience to carve out even more history in the next several days.
Senior Gemma Dryburgh and juniors Emily Penttila, Silvia Garces and Madison Opfer all are getting their third crack at the NCAA Championships, which start Friday at the Concession Golf Club in Bradenton, Fla. Sophomore Belen Goicoechea is on her second try.
Tulane is one of only nine schools in the 24-team field with back-to-back-to-back appearances, and everyone in the lineup will know what to expect. That knowledge could trump the Green Wave’s No. 30 ranking, the sixth lowest at the tournament.
“It’s invaluable,” Tulane coach Lorne Don said. “There really is that comfort level of having been there and knowing what it takes. The Golf Channel is going to be there. It’s something where you might get a little wide-eyed, but having five players that have experienced it and are used to the pressure, it helps you focus on the task at hand.”
The tournament has a format change. Instead of four rounds of stroke play determining the champion, only the top 15 teams after three rounds will get to play a fourth round. The top eight teams after the fourth round will advance to single-elimination match play, with quarterfinals, semifinals and a final.
Qualifying for match play, where previous scores are erased and anything can happen, appears attainable for Tulane. Two years ago, with four of the current players in the lineup, the Wave finished ninth at NCAAs. Last year, the Wave was ninth after three rounds.
It is a matter of improving by one measly spot.
“We really do have our sights set on getting into that top eight and having a chance to win the national championship,” Don said. “I believe they can do it, and I think they believe they can do it, too. The confidence is there.”
The path to the NCAAs has been bumpy this year. Tulane was one stroke out of the lead entering the final round at its home tournament at English Turn before sliding to fourth place. After running away with the Conference USA tournament title the past two years, the Wave slumped to seventh at the American Athletic Conference Championship.
None of the six teams that finished ahead of Tulane made it through regionals, though. The Wave golfers came up with the goods when it mattered most, tying for fifth at the South Bend, Ind. regional when the top six advanced.
Balance is Tulane’s best strength. No one finished among the top 20 individually at South Bend, but Dryburgh, Penttila, Garces and Opfer all were within two strokes of each other. When Tulane tied for first at a tournament in Texas in October, no one was in the top 10 but four cracked the top 20.
“It’s been like that most of the year,” Don said. “It just shows their consistency and how they are able to fill in for each other. Emily Penttila is our best player in stroke average, and we didn’t even count her final round of the regional championships (the worst score of the five golfers is thrown out). That’s pretty amazing.”
Don said the course in Bradenton, which measures about 6,500 yards, plays to the Wave’s strength of chipping and putting.
After finishing 15 strokes behind defending NCAA champion Duke in South Bend, he figures each player needs to improve by one shot per round to give his team a fighting chance.
“Golf is so much about believing what you’re doing and trusting all the practice you’ve put in,” he said. “They’ve done that.”