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Surprising run of dominance propels women’s golf to NCAA final

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Stanford women’s golf will attempt to win its first national championship on Wednesday after advancing to the final of the NCAA tournament with a big win over USC, the tournament’s top overall seed. After five grueling days of golf, Stanford will face fellow dark horse Baylor in match play to determine the national champion.

The Cardinal, which had battled inconsistent play all season, relied on clutch match play performances and steady improvement over the course of the tournament to advance over the nation’s elite teams.

The tournament started with four rounds of stroke play to determine the eight teams that would advance to the next stage. Led by junior Mariah Stackhouse’s opening-round 68 punctuated by four birdies in the opening 12 holes, the Cardinal finished the rain-soaked first day on top of the leaderboard with a 5-over 293.

While the rain on the first day made the greens softer, it didn’t take the teeth off the Concession Golf Club, which gave very few opportunities for birdies. A woeful second round threatened to derail the Cardinal’s playoff hopes, as their tournament-worst score of 323 left them 14 strokes behind first-place Duke.

Over the last two days of the stroke play portion of the tournament, Stanford emphatically clinched a quarterfinal appearance with a solid third round and a remarkable 1-under final round. The last round, the only under-par round of the entire competition, showcased all of the Cardinal’s strengths.

Junior Lauren Kim, the steadiest of the Cardinal golfers all season, finished 3-under par in a nearly flawless round that placed her seventh in the individual competition. Kim was joined in the top 10 by Stackhouse, who finished sixth after a final-round 70.

Between the first and fourth rounds, Stanford learned how to intelligently attack the golf course. Sophomore Quirine Eijkenboom epitomized this round-to-round improvement, posting a lower score every day of the tournament. Eijkenboom’s 73 helped clinch the Cardinal’s fourth-place finish in the stroke play event, leaving them very confident going into the match play rounds.

“[It] was a huge boost for our team going into match play,” Kim said. “We know where to hit these balls on the green to get a chance at birdie, and that’s what we did today.”

After advancing out of stroke play, the Cardinal drew conference foe Arizona in their quarterfinal match. Despite five close matches, Stanford’s clutch putting and mental toughness helped earn them a 4-1 victory over the Wildcats.

The win was punctuated by sophomore Casey Danielson’s victory over Wanasa Zhou, which required two extra holes. After relinquishing a two-hole advantage down the stretch, Danielson sank a difficult putt to match Zhou on the 19th hole before winning the match outright on the next hole. Kim and freshman Shannon Aubert relied on comeback victories, each trailing after the first nine holes before taking and keeping the lead.

Despite sealing an unexpected spot in the semifinals, the Cardinal’s day was not over. Up next was another 18-hole match against USC, the top-ranked team in the country fresh off first-place performances in the Regionals and the first four days of the Championships. Faced with the prospect of playing 36 holes in the humid Florida sun, the Cardinal were acutely aware of the mental challenges required to topple the Trojans.

“We knew we’d have to stay in the grind and focus,” Stackhouse said. “It’s definitely just staying in there and playing well for your team because we all want this really badly.”

Although the semifinal match against the Trojans was the tough task Stackhouse and the Cardinal expected, the structure of the match was very different from the quarterfinal against the Wildcats. Stackhouse suffered a brutal early loss, trailing by three after nine holes before eventually losing to Amy Lee by a final of 6 & 4.

The Cardinal responded with two blowouts of their own; Kim controlled her match from the start, winning 4 & 3 against Gabriella Then, and Aubert capitalized on mistakes by Annie Park down the stretch, winning the last four holes to finish 4 & 2.

With two tense final matches, the Cardinal could rest a little easier knowing they only had to win one to advance to the finals. Once again, Danielson provided the winning point for Stanford, overcoming another comeback with a spectacular approach shot onto the 17th green. With two putts needed to seal the match, the Trojans’ Kyung Kim conceded, bringing Danielson and the Cardinal to the brink of the championship.

“It was fun to have my teammates cheering me on the last couple of holes,” Danielson noted after the match. “It was a special moment.”

On the heels of a remarkable run to the final, and with an inexperienced group of golfers, head coach Anne Walker continues to stress the importance of the right mental approach in the Cardinal’s upcoming match.

“I’ve been speaking to the girls about keeping it exactly the same as it’s been every day,” she said. “This is a marathon out here and it’s a lot of golf left. 18 holes is a lot of golf.”

After being galvanized by an up-and-down season capped by 36 holes of pressure-packed golf in the Florida sun, the Cardinal have shown both the confidence and chemistry required to capture their first championship.

Stanford and Baylor will match up for all the marbles at noon on the Golf Channel.

Contact Sanjay Srinivas at ssrinivas ‘at’ stanford.edu.