As soon as she got the earwax removal kit, Courtney Jones knew it could be a good week. It was the tiniest bit of superstition, in a most eccentric way.
Every year at the Branch Law Firm/Dick McGuire Invitational, New Mexico head coach Jill Trujillo, tournament host, raffles off “As Seen On TV” prizes for coaches. Jones won last year – funny straws – three days before her Oklahoma State team won the tournament. She told her team this year that the prize was good luck, and that she expected another win. The Cowgirls came through, but it had way more to do with birdies than earwax.
“Hats off to our girls for the work that they’ve done throughout the summer, basically coming back and they’re ready to go,” said Jones, who begins her fourth season running the Oklahoma State program. They had only been together three weeks before playing their first tournament, but maybe that’s what you get with a team full of seniors. Jones started four of them plus a freshman at the New Mexico event. Two of the seniors, Kenzie Niesen and Maddie McCrary, finished in the top 5 individually, and freshman Stephanie Astrup was in the top 15.
There’s a lot of symmetry in this group, and most of it revolves around how they could go out. This class of seniors was among the first that Jones began recruiting when she came to Oklahoma State as the assistant women’s coach under now-head men’s coach Alan Bratton. At that point, Jones and Bratton were bidding to host any postseason event they could, any year they could get it. As a result of that work, Karsten Creek, Oklahoma State’s home course, will host the men’s and women’s NCAA Championships this spring.
“We were saying to them, our goal is to have a national championship during your time here,” Jones remembered.
Karsten Creek is hallowed ground among college golfers, considering the success Oklahoma State programs have seen through the years and the caliber of players that have passed through Stillwater on their way to professional tours. Jones can hardly put words to the Karsten experience.
“You’re out in nature,” she said. “It’s just a little oasis here.”
The men’s and women’s teams eat lunch together there nearly every day. Sometimes there are short-game competitions. It’s a great place to develop shots and live the college-golf experience.
If there’s a stat that sticks out about Oklahoma State’s women, it’s the birdie count. That’s part of what allowed them to get it done in New Mexico. The Cowgirls had 36 birdies in the first 36 holes, and 49 for the week. Last year, Oklahoma State led the country in birdies – there were 563, to be exact. That kind of scoring says a lot about the game Oklahoma State is playing. Part of it is coaching directive, part of it is that the Cowgirls are longer-than-average hitters and part of it is mindset.
“We want them to be aggressive, we want them to have fun and enjoy themselves out there,” Jones said. “When you come to a tournament, our plan is to go enjoy ourselves. To play hard but to have fun as well.”
Birdies are certainly fun. A new message Jones has tried to send is to savor a good par, too. It’s easy to get hung up on the birdies, but as Jones preaches, a shot is a shot.
At the Branch Law, Oklahoma State led scoring on the par 4s and par 3s. Generally this is a team that makes up ground on the par 5s (this week, the Cowgirls were 10th in that category), which would make sense for a team of bombers. Jones sees potential in that.
“With the par 5s, we can play a lot better,” she said. “To only have been 2 under on the par 5s is really exciting as a coach. I know we can improve our wedges and a lot of things we can work on throughout the year.”
A team of seniors is coachable.
Missing in Action
Even though college golf officially started this week, we still haven’t seen some of the best players tee it up. As a busy summer of amateur and pro starts comes to a close, some players are still cashing in on exemptions or other playing opportunities, or perhaps just resting an injury. Here’s a list of some notable players that were MIA last week:
Albane Valenzuela, Stanford: Competing in the Evian Championship as a wildcard.
Agathe Laisne, Texas: Earned her spot at the Evian for winning the European Ladies Championship.
Sophia Schubert, Texas: Also competing in the Evian as U.S. Women's Amateur champion.
Hannah O’Sullivan, Duke: Rehabbing a wrist injury suffered over the summer but expected back soon.
Bailey Tardy, Jillian Hollis, Rinko Mitsunaga, Georgia: The junior trio missed a portion of team qualifying while at the first stage of LPGA Q-School and thus did not travel with the Bulldogs to the Minnesota Invitational.
Tournament I’m watching
Field: Vanderbilt (host), Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona State, Auburn, Charlotte, Chattanooga, Clemson, Houston, Middle Tennessee, North Carolina, Northwestern, South Carolina, UCF, Virginia
Storyline: Here’s a pack of teams that are playing for the first time this season. I’ll be interested to see what Dylan Kim, the junior transfer, can do for Arkansas, plus how reigning national champion Arizona State comes out of the gate in its title-defending season.
#collegegolf Tweet of the Week
Five questions with…Bianca Pagdanganan
Pagdanganan transferred from Gonzaga to Arizona for her junior season and co-medaled at the Branch Law Firm/Dick McGuire Invitational. She was 8 under for 54 holes at the UNM Championship Course in Albuquerque, New Mexico – a course she had already played both as a freshman and for NCAA Regionals.
This was your first start with Arizona after transferring from Gonzaga. Why Arizona?
I wanted to play in a place where I could practice my golf year-round. Weather is a huge factor for me as well and I thought Arizona was a great place for me to be able to do that and pursue my golf year round. I’m pretty excited to be here and play golf against some of the best players in college.
You seemed to like the course and said you stuck to your game plan. What was that game plan – what’s your game like when all pistons are firing?
I would say that maybe one of my strengths would be my long game, meaning my drives. I like ripping my drives to the middle of the fairway. This course, the key really was to have a good tee shot and just knowing where to place your ball. That’s what we talked about with my coaches, that really was the key. You need to place yourself for a good second shot in order to get it closer to the hole. That was pretty much my game plan, too. Hit it in the right spots. I don’t really think about anything else on the golf course, I don’t think too much. Just look at your yardage
You were really cruising until No. 15 the last day (she went bogey, double-bogey, double-bogey, birdie to finish) but you followed three bad holes with that closing birdie. What does that say about you?
I just remind myself, it ain’t over ‘til it’s over. You can still keep going, finish strong. That’s what’s important about the game of golf. If you have a couple of holes left, for me, after hitting a double, I just told myself I have one last hole. Just try to make it your best hole for the round. That’s what I tried to do and I did it. (On 18,) I ended up left rough, the lie wasn’t too bad, but my second shot I had probably 195 yards left. I felt confident for my second shot, I wanted to go for the green and I did. I hit two good putts and ended up making the birdie.
You’ve qualified for postseason twice as an individual, and now you’ve landed in the Pac-12. Where does your game go from here?
Honestly, all I really want is to improve as a player. I guess I would say I played pretty well in the last tournament but there are always things to improve on to make yourself even better. For the upcoming season, I just want to be able to help the team, or be able to contribute a little bit because I really want to help us win the national title. I guess that’s what we all want.
You’re from the Philippines. Is there a golfer there who came before you that you look up to?
When I was younger, I would say someone who inspired me would be Jennifer Rosales. She was one of my idols and I used to see her when I was younger. I used to say, “She’s really good, I want to be like her.” I think she won the Philippine Ladies Open, because that was such a huge tournament and I’ve been playing that tournament since I was 12. I would just look up to the winners of that tournament. It was really inspiring to me. I also dreamt about winning that tournament. Now that I did, I just want to be an inspiration to the younger junior golfers in the Philippines who are also dreaming of playing at a high level of golf. I feel like it’s also my way of giving back.