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Brooks: Feverish Finish Sends Buffs To NCAA Nationals

May 12, 2012

ERIE - At dinner Friday night, Anne Kelly saw a little something extra in her players' eyes, and it was nothing that might have been brought on by five-alarm salsa on their burritos. Kelly and her Colorado women's golf team were dining at a local Mexican eatery after another pedestrian round - actually it was a round that could have stomped their season tortilla flat - in the NCAA Women's West Regional.

Shooting a 301 Friday at the Colorado National Golf Club - four shots worse than their first-day score - the Buffaloes had spiraled into a tie with Illinois for ninth. They had 18 holes remaining on Saturday to try and pull themselves out of their home-course funk and solidify a top eight finish, which would send them (and their coach) to the NCAA National Championships for the first time.

Kelly looked at her top five golfers and "just had a feeling that they weren't happy and they were very determined. They weren't down in the dumps and they weren't feeling sorry for themselves. They were a little ticked off and you could tell that we were going to go give it our all."

On a Saturday morning that had as much of a Scottish as a Colorado feel to it, the Buffs gave it their all and pushed it a little further. After submitting only one subpar round over the previous two days, Kelly's Buffs - it's OK now to call them Kelly's Heroes - submitted a mind-numbing five on Saturday.

Under the circumstances, it was arguably the finest collective round ever in CU women's golf. NCAA rules allow for the highest of the five players' rounds to be thrown out. Until Saturday, a par round had been thrown out only once at CU - and that came earlier this year in what has been the Buffs' finest season. For the first time in the program's 18-year history, CU wound up tossing a subpar round - a one-under-71 shot by either sophomores Alex Stewart or Kristin Coleman, or maybe by senior Jess Wallace.

Whose was it? Didn't really matter. Discarding a 71 is like tossing a sirloin for a filet. Win-win. The counted pair of 71s, coupled with senior Emily Talley's four-under-par 68 and sophomore Jenny Coleman's three-under-69, gave CU a final-round total of 279 and a fourth-place West Regional finish.

Can you say NCAA Nationals? The Buffs could and did, repeatedly. They're headed for Franklin, Tenn., on May 22-25, joining the eight top finishers from the East and Central Regions.

"We just knew what we had to do," said Wallace, whose second-round finish - a double bogey Friday on No. 18 - left her fuming and helped fuel her final day charge. "Throughout the course of a three-day tournament, there's a bunch of things that happen. With only 18 holes left we put our nerves aside and got the job done. You don't get many situations where you're under this much pressure.

"Honestly, I didn't think (discarding a subpar round) would happen. That was the greatest surprise. It's not a surprise that individually people shot what they shot because everyone on this team is an exceptional player. But the fact that we put it all together at once, that doesn't happen very often."

The Buffs' top finisher was Jenny Coleman with a three-day total of 218 that included an eagle Saturday on No. 15. "Personally it was great, everything was working (Saturday)," she said. "I was setting myself up well on the greens with my approach shots and making a lot of good putts. As a team, that's just awesome; we all played well."

Talley and Kristin Coleman each had three-day totals of 220, while Wallace was at 221. Stewart completed only two rounds.

A contingent of CU fans and school officials that included Athletic Director Mike Bohn congratulated Kelly and the Buffs as they finished an exquisite final round that saw them climb as many spots as they dropped on the last day of the Pac-12 Conference tournament. (They slipped from second to sixth.)

An emotional Kelly called the scene and her team's accomplishment "very exciting . . . I can't really express how happy and proud I am of these girls. They've worked so hard. It's been such a long process but it's really great to see it come together finally."

Until Saturday, watching it take shape hadn't been so appealing. For two days, the Buffs labored on a course that shouldn't have tortured them as it did. Weather conditions changed it dramatically from Thursday to Friday, but the Buffs admitted they should have adjusted quicker and better.

It took them two rounds - pushing it right to the wire - before they got a handle on the course that Stewart said she and her teammates knew like the backs of their hands. "We know this course," Wallace added. "We had to play it at some point."

The best advice they might have received entering the last round could have come from assistant coach Brent Franklin, who according to Talley, told them to play the course as if they were strangers to it.

"(He) said something earlier about playing this course like we don't know it . . . like a regular course, a regular tournament, and we'd play it better," Talley recalled. "We came in the first two rounds saying we know this course too well. We weren't doing smart things. I think by stepping back and having a little more respect for the golf course and saying it was the last chance, it was a good combo."

The knowledge that it was indeed a final chance registered with Talley on her third hole. "I think I was thinking . . . this could possibly be my last round of college golf," she said. "I was like, 'That's not going to happen. I don't want that to happen.' This is my last chance to go to nationals, my only chance. This is a big deal. You would think that would have had a negative effect on me, and in the past when someone puts pressure on me I kind of crumble. But (Saturday) I made my putts. I was having fun."

From Kelly down, the Buffs admitted the pressure of hosting, of entering the regional seeded No. 4, of playing on their home course, and dealing with various expectations that were heaped upon them created more pressure here than they might encounter in the National Championships.

"I think so, because with the pressure of hosting and the fact that we were expected to make it and we expected that from ourselves, it does add a bit more pressure," Wallace said. "Whereas, nationals are going to be a bit further away from home and I think a lot of the country underestimates us. I feel like we expect a lot out of ourselves here, but when we go out and play tournaments elsewhere they don't really think too much of us still. So, I think we'll be able to play more freely than we did here when we get to nationals."

But on Saturday, the Buffs played free, easy and oh-so-efficiently. Jenny Coleman knocked in a sand wedge for her eagle on No. 15, Talley chipped in for a birdie on No. 17. CNGC's four par fives tormented Talley and her teammates in Rounds 1-2, but payback was theirs on Saturday.

In the first two rounds, CU shot a collective plus-14 on the four par fives. On Saturday, the Buffs were a minus-10 on those holes, with Talley birdying three of the four and collecting a par on the fourth. On the previous day she bogeyed all of them, and a member of the CU men's golf team had snippishly asked Talley if she "did anything but bogeys on the par fives," she recalled.

Challenge offered, challenge accepted.

Said Talley: "A six on the scorecard is ugly, whether you get it on a par three, four or five - it's just ugly. I think the fact that I came out and birdied three of them (Saturday), it was awesome. The one par was a good par, so I'll take that one. It was great. I turned around a lot of places in my game."

So did each of her teammates. Stewart rallied gamely from a sinus infection and dehydration that caused her withdrawal from play after 15 holes on Friday. "I hated to withdraw because it made me feel like I was letting my teammates down," she said. "I was probably in tears for a long time."

But once back on the course, her tears dried quickly. After "about two gallons" of intravenous fluids and getting medical clearance, she was off like a rocket Saturday morning. "I just wanted to help out the team as much as I could," she said. "I felt way better than (Friday) and was pretty sure I could play. I was going to try my best, even if I wasn't feeling well."

Before the final round, the Buffs needed no one to remind them about the gravity of the day and what was at stake. And Kelly isn't given to impassioned pleas. Said Stewart: "Our coach gave her usual 10-second speech." It consisted mainly of Kelly telling the Buffs that a few butterflies were OK, but don't let them morph into anything more terrifying.

 "I'm not a real pep talker," offered Kelly. "Golf's sort of a funny sport. Every once in a while you feel like you ought to say something, so . . . I said it's OK to be nervous, but you can't be scared. Play with confidence - and they did."

The confidence oozed. Talley hit "a perfect shot" on her eighth hole, chipping in for one of her birdies "that kind of got it jump started," she said. "Because from that point on I went birdie, par, birdie, par, birdie . . . just a whole bunch of birdies in a row. It got me in a good stretch of holes.

"My sister (Caroline) came up to me at one point and said, 'Everyone is playing lights out.' I was thinking I don't want to be the one that's shooting the highest score . . . it was awesome. We all played well."

CU and Pepperdine, which finished third behind co-winners UCLA and LSU, tied at 279 for the regional's lowest round, with both recorded Saturday. Wallace termed the Buffs' final round "the best collective effort I've ever seen out of a team, especially with the pressure that we were under. I mean, just knowing everyone was capable of doing this, but that we all came up and did it together when it mattered most shows what we're really, really made of."

Among their five players, the Buffs made 20 birdies and one eagle against 12 bogeys Saturday. Talley bogeyed her final hole, but it couldn't come close to ruining her day. After she hit her tee shot into a trap to the left of the green, she said getting "that bunker shot out that close (to the pin), I was very happy with that. That last putt - I pretty much knew it wasn't going in. I was shaking too much."

After she two-putted from about six feet, she went straight to Kelly, hugged her long and hard, shared a few tears, and said she told her coach, "Sorry I bogeyed the last hole, but I did my best . . . I don't feel like I left a shots out there."

None of the Buffs left much of anything on the course. Instead of ending their season with two disappointing rounds, they extended it with one they'll never forget - and Kelly was humbled by their resolve, their final-day mindsets and the way they wrapped it all up.

"They played smart shots," she said. "They'll have a bad hole or make a mistake, but it's usually not a mental mistake or a bad decision. The last couple of days we made a couple of bad decisions - and that's not typical. So (Saturday) they played more like themselves, making smart decisions. Sure, you're going to miss a shot, but they played smart.

"I just don't want this season to end yet because they're just such a great bunch to be around. I wanted it so badly for them to be able to experience the National Championships. And I'm happy, too."

Contact: BG.Brooks@Colorado.EDU