For every unbelievable comeback story, there are inevitably at least a few that fall short. That was the case for Stanford women’s golf on Wednesday, as the team turned the almost worthless cards they held in the NCAA Championship into a real shot, only to end up leaving empty-handed.
A spectacular approach shot from Washington’s Julianne Alvarez in the second hole of a playoff turned out to be the final blow when senior Lauren Kim’s 15-foot putt to halve the hole landed just a hair to the right. This minuscule error handed the Huskies their first national championship and left Stanford’s title defense effort, quite literally, off by an inch.
The near miss concluded a wild saga that saw Stanford shift from being on the brink of elimination to a tentative position in the driver’s seat and then right back again. The Cardinal seemed neck-and-neck with the Huskies for most of the afternoon, until Washington’s Ying Luo chipped in a birdie on the 18th hole from 51 yards out, earning her a crucial win over junior Casey Danielson and putting her team just a single point away from securing the title.
Stanford senior Mariah Stackhouse, who achieved a level of recognition in the golf community for her clutch finals performance in 2015, still appeared in control of her match, but Kim, the team’s top-ranked golfer, faced an improbable climb to even her match and force Alvarez into a playoff.
Though the senior had made a 20-foot putt on 15 to extend the match and, minutes later, another match-saving birdie on 16, she still had to win both of her final holes just to continue her match beyond the 18th.
“I was hitting my approach in [on 15] and I happened to get a glance at the scoreboard, and I think we were down in three matches, so that motivated me to turn on some heat,” Kim said.
Kim made another long birdie on 17, then took advantage of a three-putt by Alvarez on 18 to complete her comeback from three down with three to play. Stackhouse was already in a playoff of her own after losing her lead on 17, meaning that both the Cardinal’s senior leaders found themselves in sudden death situations with the team needing both to come through reclaim their title.
“I had control for the majority of the day, and then on 15 she birdied and I kind of let my emotions get to me a little bit there for a second, just because I was disappointed with the result I got on my second shot,” said Stackhouse.
“I tried to turn it around, but her putter got hot. She just started making everything. But I was able to hold her off once we went into 18, and we halved that hole and continued.”
Stackhouse appeared to regain her composure on the extra holes, forcing a tough par from Washington’s Sarah Rhee on the first playoff hole before finally coming out on top with a well-played par on 18 after Rhee could do no better than a bogey. Kim still seemed in control as well, making a seven-foot par putt to halve the first playoff hole after another spectacular Alvarez approach shot and bringing the match back onto the 18th, where she had just recorded her key victory.
Unfortunately, Kim couldn’t replicate the quality of her fairway play from her first take of the hole, leaving herself with the long par attempt that ended her near-perfect run of form.
The putt will be the last in the college career of Kim, a four-year run that saw her help lead the Cardinal to their first national title in program history and position herself as one of the top collegiate golfers in the country. She and Stackhouse, who also leaves with the Stanford women’s course record, have played a major role in reshaping the program from a mid-tier power to a perennial contender for the NCAA championship.
Both Stackhouse and Kim are likely to move on to the professional circuit, leaving the team in the hands of the likes of Danielson, sophomore Shannon Aubert and freshman Sierra Kersten. Aubert secured the first Cardinal point in the finals on Saturday after leading from the second tee, while Kersten dropped her finals match but still played a major role for the team in the playoffs with a key win against Duke.
The team will have to look for additional contributors during the offseason, either through new recruits or through players reemerging from their current ranks. While it will be impossible to replace Kim and Stackhouse, if the team can find any new stars, it appears prepped to remain at the top of the game for years to come.
Contact Andrew Mather at [email protected]