GREENEVILLE, Tenn. --- There's a small Methodist church just
inside the Greeneville, Tenn., city limits that carries what turned out to be a
prophetic message on its marquee.
It simply states, "Life is good."
Indeed, life is good for California Baptist University women's golf Friday night. The Lancers are the 2011 NAIA Women's Golf National Champions.
In third place trailing both Oklahoma City and Embry-Riddle (Fla.) with four holes to play, the Lancers rallied, got a clutch birdie putt from Nathalie Silva on 18 to force a playoff and then promptly combined for a -1 on that playoff hole to defeat Embry-Riddle and win the program's first-ever national title in dramatic and thrilling fashion.
"Over the last four years we've had great teams but couldn't get over the hump," said CBU Head Coach Lane Pace, who was named NAIA Coach of the Year. "We knew this was our last chance, and that's all we talked about-getting here and giving ourselves a chance on the final day. The girls stepped up and got better every round. This is just a great feeling."
Not only was it the first women's golf national championship to be decided in a playoff, but it was the closest finish ever as the top four teams were all within just three strokes of each other.
This one literally came down to the last stroke on the last hole--and then some.
The Lancers posted a 307 today, their best round of the
tournament. They finished with 72-hole total of +84, 1,252 (319-314-312-307) as did
Embry-Riddle (323-305-315-309), which also lost the 2008 title by just three strokes.
"If you would have told me that Embry-Riddle was going to shoot something that started with a three and a zero, I would have told you they were going to win," said Pace. "That's how tough this course was, especially in the final round of the national tournament. But my girls came out firing today, and it was a total team effort."
Shorter (Ga.) was third with a 1,254 (+86), and Oklahoma
City, who was leading heading into the final four holes, finished fourth with a
1,255 (+87). The Lancers played the final four holes at +2, while Embry-Riddle was +3 and Oklahoma City was +7.
But 72 holes couldn't pick out a winner, so to a playoff it went.
The playoff was unlike anything ever witnessed in the sport. All 10 players for both teams played the playoff hole (hole No. 4, a 362-yard par 4) as a 10-some, with the top four scores counting. All 10 tee shots got off safely. Just three were in the fairway; two of them had Lancer logos on them.
Interestingly enough, CBU played the fourth hole at +12 the entire week. Embry-Riddle played it at +9.
One by one the 10 players hit their second shots towards the green. CBU calmly put all five of its balls right in the center of the green, along with three balls from Embry-Riddle. However, two of ERAU's balls sailed left of the green and were in trouble. One of those ended up a bogey, the other for double bogey.
Adriana Niclotti put in the Lancers' first par, which was remarkable in and of itself since her tee shot landed on the No. 7 fairway. She rallied to put her second shot on the heart of the green and two-putted for a cool par.
After Embry-Riddle had to take its bogey, Sara Koizumi, who was steady as a rock over the final three rounds of the tournament, sank the only birdie of the playoff to give the Lancers a huge advantage.
"When I got up to the ball and my hands were shaking and I couldn't breathe," said Koizumi. "I saw the put right before mine and got the exact line so all I needed to focus on was the speed. As soon as I hit the ball I knew it was in. Wow."
Samantha Katz followed Koizumi with a bogey, barely missing her par putt, and Silva put the Lancers in position to win with a tricky par put. Though it was just about four feet, it had a major right-to-left break. The All-American tapped it in putting the Lancers in position to win it with just one more par.
That honor belonged to freshman Kirsten Keyser, who incidentally didn't have her final-round 86 factor into the team score. Yet, as the day would have it, she was given a chance at redemption on the playoff hole, and she was the one who drained a six-foot par putt to give the Lancers the title.
"To play one-under for the playoff hole was amazing," said Pace.
It was truly a team effort--all the way from Koizumi's -1 (72) that featured five birdies and was the lowest round of the day and second lowest of the tournament, to Silva struggling to a +7 (80) and losing out on the individual title but forcing the playoff with her massively clutch birdie on her final stroke at 18.
And that was after a double-bogey at 17.
"Nathalie struggled today, but all along her goal was for the team to win," said Pace. "We got to the last hole, and I knew it was going to be close. We were on the fairway and I looked at her and said 'it's time for you to be my hero.' She looked at me square in the eyes and said 'ok coach' and proceeded to hit the ball within 10 feet of the cup. Then she just buried it, and that was unbelievable."
To Niclotti, who struggled her way to a pair of 82s in the second and third round, but coming back like the two-time All-American she is with a steady 78 (+5) in her final collegiate round.
To Katz, who was steadily in the low 80s all week until today when she uncorked a 77 (+4), her best round of the week. She played the front-nine at +1 and then came up with two big pars at 17 and 18 when her competitors were struggling.
"I woke up the middle of the night last night and knew it was going to be a good day," said Katz. "I had so much confidence right from the start today and am really happy with the results. I knew we could do this way back at the beginning of the semester. We're a good team and we pick each other up."
To Keyser, whose 18-hole score wasn't counted today, but
stayed in the moment and pounced on a second chance to make her mark.
To Pace and his assistant, Joe Prince, who were constantly working the course, advising the athletes and keeping them focused on each shot at hand.
Silva ended up finishing third, taking home her second straight top five finish. She finished with a 302 (76-73-73-80), just one stroke out of second.
"When I won last year, I wasn't able to fully enjoy it, because I wanted so badly for the team to win," said Silva. "This year, even though I didn't win again, it didn't matter, because it is way more special to win as a team. I was nervous, because I wasn't playing well, but I knew the team needed me. I just tried to do what I did all week and that was just make a shot."
Koizumi made a dramatic climb towards the top of the leader board all week and earned All-Tournament honors with a 12th place finish after totaling 312 (84-78-78-72). Niclotti completed her collegiate career with a 318 (76-82-82-78), finishing 24th.
"After my first round, I didn't want to let my team down and needed to step it up and make sure my score had a positive impact on the team," said Koizumi.
Did it ever.
Katz was 47th with a 324 (83-84-80-77), and Keyser was 92nd in her first national tournament with a 340 (92-81-81-86).