Newly Confident On The Green, Chacon Leads Ducks Into Pac-12s
On a recent practice day for the Oregon women's golf team, players gathered at Emerald Valley Golf Club.
The lush, green expanses of Emerald Valley's fairways beckoned, and four Ducks set out to play the course. Briana Chacon, however, immediately retired to a practice area beyond the driving range. She grabbed her putter and went to work.
Tee to green, there's never been a question about Chacon's talent. Her coach, Derek Radley, calls the sophomore from Whittier, Calif., "one of the best — if not the best — ball strikers in the country."
"She hits it high, she hits it solid — just so straight," Radley said. "We always knew that, man, if she could just start making a few putts, she can really put herself in contention."
Until a few weeks ago, it was on the putting green where Chacon saw her scores go from elite to average. A change in equipment along with help from Oregon's staff in reading greens has taken her from average to elite, however, and Chacon leads the Ducks into the Pac-12 Championships beginning Friday at Stanford.
Newly confident with a putter in her hands, Chacon has four straight top-10 finishes to her name entering the conference tournament. Three weeks ago she finished second individually at the PING/ASU Invitational, helping the Ducks to their first tournament title since 2016.
"I feel like all other aspects of my game are pretty solid; putting was, like, the only missing puzzle piece," Chacon said. "And luckily I've been able to change it."
Persistent coaching from Radley and assistant Monica Vaughn helped too, as has Chacon's diligent work ethic, developed under the tutelage of her father, Oscar, a former college football player. But when Chacon says "luckily" she's been able to make a change, well, there really was a stroke of fortune to Chacon's breakout season, too.
Chacon was in the lineup for Oregon's 2021 season debut at the Sun Devil Winter Classic, and finished a solid but unspectacular 22nd, with rounds of 73-76-74. Based on analytics from Chacon's tournament play to that point in her career, the staff figured she was giving up three to four strokes per round to the field on the putting green. In a three-round tournament, that adds up quickly.
The Ducks' next event was two weeks later, at the Bruin Wave Invitational. In between tournaments, Chacon went home to work with a putting coach. While at home, she went club shopping one day with her dad, something in hindsight she calls "an out-of-the-blue move."
Chacon returned to Eugene with a new putter purchased on the trip. And she hasn't looked back.
Fueled by the equipment change, and the implementation of the AimPoint system of reading greens, Chacon is giving up about two fewer strokes per round on the greens. That's proving to be the difference between top-25 finishes and top-10 finishes.
After playing the Bruin Wave Invitational as an individual and finishing in a tie for ninth, Chacon returned to Oregon's lineup. She tied for sixth a week later in the Wildcat Invitational, before soaring to second two weeks later at Arizona State. At the Silverado showdown the week after that, Chacon "settled" for seventh.
"You can see her expectations growing for every tournament," Radley said. "The fact that, I can be in contention, I feel like I can win."
With expectations comes pressure, and Chacon admits to feeling a bit more these days. But Oscar, who played football at Tennessee Tech, made sure his daughter wasn't armed only with elite ball-striking skills on the golf course. She's also brings elite mental toughness.
"You've just gotta embrace the pressure," Chacon said. "You can't run from it. Obviously it takes practice; I feel like, in my junior golf, I really got to practice that a lot — trying to finish well and playing well with pressure."
Chacon's scores bear out her ability to handle pressure. In each of her last three tournament appearances, not only has Chacon finished in the top 10, but her scores have gotten progressively better through each weekend.
At the Wildcat Invitational, she went 72-71-69. At Arizona State, her progression was 74-70-68. In the Silverado Showdown, it was 74-73-70.
Some of that, Radley said, is attributed to an ability to adapt to course knowledge gained from each successive round. And some of it is pure grit.
"Obviously you can see her getting more comfortable throughout the week, and finishing on a strong note" Radley said. "That's what great players do."
With a new putter and newfound confidence on the green to complement her ball-striking skill, Chacon has been a great player for the Ducks this season. Now she'll look to thrive in the pressure of the postseason, and continue her run in the conference tournament.