FRANKLIN, Tenn. - An array of contenders currently playing with confidence will converge on Vanderbilt Legends Club next week aiming to prevent the first repeat champion ever in NCAA Division I Women's Golf Championship.
The reigning champion, sophomore Austin Ernst of LSU, is among 126 entrants expected to tee off Tuesday, May 22 at the 6,377-yard Legends North Course. The first pairings from 24 teams and six other top individual qualifiers will start the 72-hole championship Tuesday morning at the Tom Kite-designed layout. The final round is scheduled Friday, May 25.
Numerous women currently playing at a championship level stand in the way of Ernst making NCAA golf history. According to Golfweek.com and Golfstat.com, nine of the nation's top 10 golfers are entered, including by No. 1 Lindy Duncan of Duke, No. 2 Emily Tubert of Arkansas and No. 3 Marina Alex of Vanderbilt. The field also includes recent NCAA regional medalists Lisa McCloskey of Southern California, Catherine O'Donnell of North Carolina and Katerina Ruzickova of Texas A&M.
Julie Williams, assistant editor at Golfweek.com, expects a wide-open competition for the individual title.
"It's definitely more open than the team competition," Williams said. "There are at least 10 to 15 individuals that have the talent to win.
"Lindy (Duncan) is definitely a major contender. She won the Fall Preview there and just doesn't make many mistakes. I also like the Alabama golfers and UCLA has three solid contenders. (Austin) Ernst just played well at the Kraft (LPGA event) and is very confident. I think you also have to consider Marina (Alex) from Vanderbilt in there too." Williams added.
Ernst, who produced a hole-in-one in capturing the 2011 crown, is peaking at the right time. The Seneca, South Carolina native rebounded from a disappointing 36th place result at the Southeastern Conference Championships in April with her best effort of the spring - a runner-up finish behind O'Donnell at the NCAA West Regional less than two weeks ago.
Despite the strong regional effort, Ernst entered the competition far from her best. She entered the regional as the Tigers' No. 3 golfer. And Ernst's only previous competition at the Legend's North Course was a disappointing tied for 30th at the Mason Rudolph Fall Preview last September.
Duncan, Alex, Tubert and McCloskey could provide plenty of competition for Ernst.
Duke's Duncan, a three-time Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., has been the nation's most consistent performer. The junior recently captured medalist honors at the ACC Championships, one of four wins this season. Fourth at the East Regional, Duncan also likes the Legends North layout, having rallied with a final round 68 to capture the 2011 Rudolph Fall Preview.
Alex, a two-time SEC Player of the Year from Wayne, N.J., will conclude her Vanderbilt career at the team's home course. She also enters the championship with near-wins at the SEC Championship and NCAA Central Regional, respectively. Alex also has a runner-up finish at the 2009 Rudolph, played on the same Legends North layout.
While Ernst seeks to become the first multiple NCAA medalist, a victory by Alex would create history of its own: in 30 previous D-I women's championships, the individual winner has yet to come from the host school.
Tubert, a sophomore from Burbank, Calif., is a two-time first team All-SEC performer for the Razorbacks. A 2011 Curtis Cup member for the USA, Tubert has consistently been near the top of the leaderboard through the season, including a third place finish at the SEC Championships and sixth place result at the Central Regional. She also finished T-16th at the Rudolph Fall Preview on the Legend's course.
McCloskey, a three-time All-American from Montgomery, Texas, will attempt to become Southern California's fourth individual national champion, and first since Dewi Schreefel claimed the 2006 title. She paced a convincing USC team victory at the NCAA Central Regional by claiming the individual title with a 3-under 213 total. She also enjoys the Legends course, having tied for eighth overall at the 2011 Rudolph Fall Preview.
Three other top collegiate golfers from the Pac-10, Giulia Molinaro of Arizona State, and UCLA's Erynne Lee and Tiffany Lua, are nationally ranked and enter the championships off impressive recent results.
Several others have the talent to walk away with the individual honors. The Alabama duo of Jennifer Kirby and Brooke Pancake rank among the SEC's top performers and own excellent finishes on the course. Virginia's Brittany Altomare and Vanderbilt's Lauren Stratton also appear prepared for a top performance.
An all-session pass for NCAA D-I Championship are $25 for adults and $15 for youth. Tickets for each day of competition are $8 for adults and $5 for youth. Tickets can be purchased either online at ncaa.com or in person at the Vanderbilt Athletic Ticket Office in McGugin Center on the Nashville campus. Tickets also will be available each day of competition.
For Twitter updates on the NCAA Championship, follow @NCAAWGolf12