Friday, May 18, 2018

Furman women's golf takes aim at NCAA title

The seventh-ranked Furman women's golf team begins play at the
NCAA Championships in Stillwater, Okla. Friday afternoon.
In 2016, the Furman women's golf team played in the NCAA Championships for the first time in eight years and finished 20th. Last season, the Paladins returned to the NCAA Championships and finished 12th. Furman will wrap up this season by trying to continue climbing that ladder, with hopes of ascending to the top.

The No. 7-ranked Paladins open play at the 2018 NCAA Championships in Stillwater, Okla. today with a tee time of 2:21 p.m. Furman, which is paired with No. 8 Arizona and No. 9 Texas, will tee off in Saturday's second round at 9:36 a.m.

The Paladins advanced to the NCAA Championships with a third-place showing at the NCAA Tallahassee (Fla.) Regional last week. Furman shot an opening round 280 there to put itself in prime position to be among the six qualifiers for the nationals, then locked up its invitation with a final round 273. Furman was led by 2018 Southern Conference Player of the Year Natalie Srinivasan, who finished third with a 12-under 204. Teammate Jacqueline Bendrick placed ninth at 7-under.

"It got close there a little bit, but they really persevered at the end and made a lot of birdies," Furman coach Jeff Hull said afterwards. "I am especially proud of Natalie and Jacqueline for third and ninth place finishes, respectively. I am really excited to go to nationals and, hopefully, make it to match play with a chance to win a national championship."

Tallahassee marked the second consecutive outstanding regional for Srinivasan, a sophomore out of Spartanburg. At the 2017 Lubbock (Texas) Regional, she tied for fifth place. Srinivasan's showing in Lubbock came after she won the SoCon Tournament by four strokes over teammate Alice Chen. Hull said that SoCon showing "flipped a switch" for Srivasan, who went on to qualify for the U.S. Women's Open and U.S. Amateur following last year's NCAA Championships.

That momentum carried over into this season for Srinivasan, whose 72.08 average score over 32 rounds ranks among the best in the country. She added to her stellar season last week when she opened the Tallahassee Regional with a 65. In the storied history of the women's golf program, no Paladin has ever had a lower round as she tied a record set by Caroline Peek Blaylock in 1995.

"She has been really close to going low like this, so it was great to see her put it together," Hull said.

Srinivasan was honored to earn the SoCon's award as its top player. She said it was even more special simply because of the teammates she beat out for it.

"I had a really good year and was fortunate to play well in some big tournaments, but any of us on this team could win that," Srinivasan said.

There's plenty of truth behind Srinivasan's modesty. That was fully evident during a dominant display by Furman at this year's SoCon Championship. The Paladins had four of the top three finishers led by medalist Reona Hirai. Srinivasan was four back in second. Haylee Harford and Chen tied for third at five back, while Bendrick finished eighth. It all added up to a 34-stroke victory, the seventh-largest margin in SoCon history and largest since Furman's 38-stroke win in 1999.

All five Paladins made the All-SoCon team this season, while Madison Moosa made the All-Freshman team. Hull was SoCon Coach of the Year for the second time in as many years as head coach.

"We've proven that all five players can win a golf tournament," Hull said. "We've got the second-lowest drop score average in the country, meaning the score that doesn't count."

Furman's focus now turns towards trying to earn the prestigious program's first national championship since 1976. That season, World Golf Hall of Famers Betsy King and Beth Daniel led the Paladins to the AIAW national title.

At the NCAA Championships, the 24-team field that will have 54 holes of stroke play today through Sunday. The top 15 left will have one round on Monday. From there the top eight go into a single elimination match-play bracket. The finals will be Wednesday.

For Srinivasan, nothing would be greater than helping send the seniors (Bendrick, Chen, Hirai) out on top. While golf is in many ways the ultimate individual sport, that team mentality still permeates through the Paladins.

"I think about this being the seniors last shot all the time. It will definitely be different next year without them," Srinivasan said. "We just want to make them have the best last year possible.
 "Over the last couple of years, our team has been so deep. It's really cool that we're able to have such good players here. You don't really have to worry because you know if you don't play well, somebody else will."

For live scoring updates from the NCAA Championships, click here.

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