Marina Alex (No. 3) and Lauren Stratton (No. 23) each entered the NCAA Championships ranked among the nation's top golfers and seemed destined for good performances this week on a familiar course that each has played countless times. The two may still end up near the top of the leaderboard at the Vanderbilt Legends Club North Course, but it will be of no thanks to their opening round performances.
Alex carded an uncharacteristic 5-over 77 and Stratton was just two shots better, firing an opening-round 75 on Tuesday. The end result was not what anyone could have expected from Vanderbilt's two most experienced and steady players. With its top two players struggling to gain traction, Vanderbilt tumbled near the bottom of the leaderboard after round one. Vanderbilt's difficulties on day one were a surprise to most, including Head Coach Greg Allen, who summarized it best. "Shocked," he said when asked about the team's first-round play.
The Commodores were down, but far from out. A 72-hole tournament is more like a marathon than a sprint and Wednesday was an excellent indicator as to why. Vanderbilt rebounded from its opening round by shooting 22 strokes better than it did on Tuesday. The team totaled a 4-under 284, which was the second-lowest score of the day behind South Carolina's 7-under 281.
Leading the way for Vanderbilt's resurgence was none other than its two big guns - Alex and Stratton. With forgettable rounds under their belts, the Vanderbilt duo returned to form and helped catapult the Commodores up the leaderboard. Alex fired a 4-under 68, a nine-shot turnaround from her opening round and moved into the top 20 after entering the day tied for 85th.
Stratton was not far off of Alex's pace. The Spring Hill, Tenn., native shot a 2-under 70, a five-stroke improvement from round one. The two are now tied at 1-over for the tournament.
"I've said this before that when you have two of the best players in the country playing well, your team will have a chance, and with a 75 and 77 yesterday, (there was) not much of a chance for us," Allen said.
The 2012 SEC Player of the Year, Alex put herself in an early hole on Tuesday with a triple bogey on hole No. 4 and she never was able to recover. Wednesday, starting on the back nine, Alex made sure not to make the same mistake twice. She parred the first hole - No. 10 - and then birdied the par-4 11th. She would add another birdie on No. 16 to finish the first nine at 2-under par. Alex had two more birdies after making the turn and completed a bogey-free round of golf.
"I got off to a better start and I feel like anytime you make a birdie before you make a bogey in any round of golf, you are probably going to play pretty well," Alex said. "Getting that birdie under your belt early is calming and just makes you feel like you are going to have a good day."
Alex's round was the second lowest of the day behind only South Carolina's Katie Burnett, who fired a 5-under 67.
Stratton's day was also started by a fast start. She birdied No. 10 and finished the first nine at 2-under par with two more birdies and just one bogey. On the second nine, Stratton played even par with a bogey on No. 2 and a birdie on No. 4. A key part of her turnaround was her improved play off the tee.
"I hit some fairways today," Stratton said. "I only hit driver twice early and put it away; stuck with 3-wood all day and just got it rolling out there."
With her tee shots more consistently in the fairway, Stratton was able to give herself more opportunities for birdie putts, and it paid off.
"I hit some fairways, could get a little bit of spin, and made a few putts," Stratton remarked. "I had four birdies today and it was nice to get a few to roll in and just keep a nice momentum. It was a solid round."
The two players agreed there was added pressure to perform on Tuesday, and it certainly got the best of them. But after taking their lumps early, the two came out looser on Wednesday and it showed.
"You expect to do so well considering it is your home course and you know every blade of grass out here," Alex said. "And then when you get off to a slow start, things kind of spiral and that is what happened.
"Mentally, it wasn't a great day and we put ourselves way behind and I think in a sense, it did alleviate a little pressure. We came out here today and we had nothing to lose, individually and as a team. You can only go forward and improve from what happened yesterday and that is what we did today. Hopefully we can keep this momentum going for the next two days."
If the Commodores can, they will find themselves near the top of the leaderboard come Friday. As the team headed to lunch following their second round, Vanderbilt sat in 18th place after playing in the morning wave. However, as the temperatures began to rise and the course began to dry out, scores started to rise and Vanderbilt continued to move up the leaderboard.
With its top two golfers back on track, Vanderbilt is squarely in position to continue its assent the next two days.