Championship Memories Saturday: Athenas Win 2018 NCAA Women's Golf Title
For four days, the Claremont-Mudd-Scripps women's golf team was locked in a tight battle with Williams at the 2018 NCAA Division III National Championships. Five golfers for each team played 72 holes, or 360 total for both squads.
And it still wasn't enough.
When the 72nd and final regulation hole came to a close on day four, the Athenas and Ephs stood deadlocked at 1261 strokes apiece, which meant a sudden-death playoff hole. And then a second, when the first one still wouldn't break the tie.
The tension was unlike anything the Athenas had ever been through. A year prior, CMS earned its highest ever finish at nationals (eighth), and the program had been there twice before in 2011-12 and 2012-13, finishing 14th and 11th, respectively. But this was a situation where the national championship trophy was sitting there on the clubhouse table, fully in reach for both programs, and the margin for error was basically down to zero. Any one shot from any of the five golfers could turn out to be the difference as to who gets to hold it.
Williams had a little bit more nationals experience than CMS, finishing fourth the year before, fifth in 2016 and winning its first national title in 2015. One of the five Ephs in 2018, senior Phoebe Mattana, was a freshman on that national title team, which saw Williams win by a comfortable 18 strokes after pulling away on the final day. A playoff, though, was a whole new level of pressure to everyone.
Golf is notorious for being perhaps the most mentally grinding sport there is. You can't spend the first five minutes running around and getting your adrenaline going to fight through nerves. You can't rely on quick reflexes or instincts. It's just all about focus and concentration, putting the last shot behind you, good or bad, and locking in on the next one. Professionals have a hard time with the grind, never mind college students, who also, in CMS' case, happened to be in the middle of final exams.
"The national championship was exhausting because I still had to take finals while also walking six hours a day, for four days," said Mira Yoo, a first-year who was in one of the five Athenas to compete at the 2018 NCAA Championships. "For me, playing four days in a row was more physically exhausting than mentally."
In addition, the El Campeon Golf Course at Mission Inn Resort in Howey-in-the-Hills, Florida where the championship was held, was exceptionally challenging. There were a lot of high scores, and a lot of missed shots and bogeys that everyone had to fight through mentally. There were 128 golfers in the field, each playing at least three rounds (and most playing four), and only once did a player manage to come in under par, which was CMS senior captain Margaret Loncki carding a 1-under 72 on the third round.
"It was really difficult to stay focused and grind all four days," said Emily Attiyeh, who along with Yoo was competing at nationals for the first time as a CMS rookie. "The course was tough and required a lot of thinking and deliberation. We have a routine before each round that keeps us grounded, reminding us that this is like any other tournament. Also, being able to see each other on the course or passing messages through our coach helps create little moments of calm in such a tense environment."
Williams and CMS established themselves as the two front-runners on the first day, with each shooting a 311, putting the two programs 10 shots clear of their closest competitors. Loncki and junior Kelly Ransom helped get the Athenas out to a good start with 77s, while Yoo opened up with a 78 and sophomore Emma Kang chipped in with a 79.
Day two saw the Athenas take the lead with a 317, matching NYU for the low score of the day, five shots better than the 322 from Williams. Loncki shot a 75 to move into a tie for the individual lead, and Yoo contributed her second straight 78.
Things tightened up a little on day three, as Williams (315) trimmed one shot of the CMS lead to close the lead to just four strokes heading into the final round. George Fox also had the best round of the tournament for anyone with a 305, getting into the picture at eight shots back of the Athenas. Loncki's 72 allowed her to take over the individual lead by three strokes, while Yoo and Attiyeh tied for the second-best round on CMS, as the freshman class came up big for the Athenas on "moving day", the unofficial nickname for the third round of a four-round tournament.
The pressure on the final day reached a fever pitch. Yoo tried to deal with it by staying locked in and ignoring everything else going on around her.
"On the last day, I had no idea how everyone on my team was playing," she said. "And I was clueless that Williams was having their best round. Since we had been leading the first three days, I think the team did not feel stressed about the tournament until the final day."
The Athenas managed to stay steady on the front nine, with Yoo shooting 37, Kang 38, Attiyeh 39 and Loncki 40, which added up to a combined +10. Williams, though, had three of its four players shoot even par on the front nine, led by Mattana, who birdied the ninth, to help the Ephs pull even with just nine holes to go. George Fox wasn't able to keep up its third-day pace and fell 14 shots back at the turn, making it a two-team race on the back nine.
The tension kept mounting, and birdies were hard to come by, as the two teams combined for only eight birdies on the back nine. CMS had five of them, two each from Loncki and Yoo. Kang and Yoo each birdied the 17th hole, with Yoo's birdie shot perhaps the most memorable of the entire tournament, over the first 72 holes at least (foreshadowing alert).
"My shot to get on the green missed entirely," Yoo said. "I was probably 30-40 feet from the hole behind a couple of palm trees. There was little room for error in my chip shot. The green was sloped so if I hit it too hard, I would risk my shot rolling into the water. Thankfully, I hit my shot and landed it exactly where I had planned to with the perfect speed. When I saw the ball go into the hole, I did not register it immediately until my teammate, who was waiting on the next tee, started cheering. That was probably one of the most difficult shots I had from the national championships."
However, after the dramatic chip-in birdie gave CMS a burst of momentum, Williams' Cordelia Chan answered with her own pressure-packed birdie, leaving the two teams tied going into the last hole. The tie remained until the final two groups, when Yoo and Chan each had a clutch par, and Holly Davenport of Williams and Loncki closing out with clutch pars of their own as well. Once the scores were verified, that left the two teams at 1261 apiece, and the playoff hole pressure, and chaos, began.
"One of my favorite moments from the championship was when we realized we had to play a playoff," said Yoo. "Our team started panicking about finding our golf bags and getting mentally prepared to play again. There were so many other teams and golf bags around the green that some of us could not find our bags. We were yelling 'Where's my bag?' which gave us a big laugh. It helped relax our nerves and brush off some of the pressure."
The ten golfers remaining headed back to the 18th tee for a 369-yard, par-four playoff hole, the 73rd of the tournament. The 18th had been brutally difficult all week, as CMS golfers played the hole a combined 20 times over four rounds and had nine bogeys and two double-bogeys on it (with no birdies). Williams did manage two birdies over four rounds, but also three bogeys, three double-bogeys and one quadruple bogey.
On the first playoff hole, CMS stayed solid and looked like it had a chance to win, but when Davenport made a clutch 10-foot putt for Williams in the final group, the two teams were still dead even. So they made a U-turn and headed right back to the 18th again for the 74th hole of the tournament.
In the second playoff group, Attiyeh gave CMS the lead with a big par while her Williams playing partner bogeyed. Coming through under that pressure on a hole which had given her trouble over the tournament, was one of her favorite personal moments of the week.
"Definitely," she said when asked if she looks back with pride on her 74th hole. "I had a mental block with that hole as I struggled with it the every day leading up to the last. To come in and post a good score when it really counted was something that I was really proud of. Generally golf is extremely high pressure but that playoff was something most of us had not experienced as it was head-to-head play. So I am proud of all of us for sticking with it and not cracking."
Chan, though, once again proved to have the answer for Williams, as her birdie in the second to last group pulled Williams back even. That left Loncki and Davenport as the last two on the course to determine whether there would be a champion or another playoff hole.
The players matched each other shot for shot, until it came down to the putting green. Loncki was further away and had to putt first from about 15 feet, a difficult putt, and one with tremendous pressure on it. If she didn't make it, Davenport would have a chance to win the whole thing from about the same distance as she made on the previous playoff hole. In typical golf fashion, everything was dead silent as everyone waited for Loncki to attempt her putt.
"I had trouble seeing what was going on because there were so many people around, so I was not even sure how far Marge's putt was," said Attiyeh. "Nonetheless, I had a feeling it was going in because she is an amazing pressure player."
Sure enough, Loncki made the kind of putt every golfer dreams about on the practice green. She already had the individual championship sewn up, but this pressure-packed putt was one that put CMS in the driver's seat for the national championship, and her teammates marveled at their captain's performance.
"Marge's putt was incredible," said Yoo. "In a typical golf round, I rarely make a 15-footer, but she was able to make it under extreme pressure. Marge's putt is probably one of the most amazing clutch moments I have experienced."
"Besides watching professional sports, it was definitely the most amazing thing I had ever witnessed," said Attiyeh. "Although, she had been hitting clutch shots like that all season and I think it was incredible just to bear witness of her golf those few months."
However, as much as people wanted to celebrate Loncki's clutch putt, it wasn't over. The tension merely mounted.
"The moment Marge made her putt, everyone watching became extremely nervous," said Yoo. "The Williams player still had to putt."
However, instead of having a "for-all-the-glory" putt to win it, Davenport was forced into making a "do-or-die" one by Loncki. Davenport had already kept Williams alive once, and was right back in that spot again, which helped give her some familiarity with the pressure of the moment. She struck her putt with the exact same confident stroke, and it once again tracked the hole perfectly, looking to those with good angles that she had done it again and a third playoff would ensue. But it stopped right on the lip, and the national championship, literally decided by less than the width of a golf ball, went to CMS.
"I could not see how far away (Davenport) was and I didn't realize that it almost went in," said Attiyeh. "When she missed it took a second to realize that we had truly won and it was over. That moment was a huge relief and I think we were all stunned that it had ended that way."
In a scenario that's unique to golf, CMS still had to hold back its emotions for a few more seconds, biting their lips and squelching their screams, as Davenport still had to tap in to officially finish the round.
"I could feel the entire team suppressing their excitement," said Yoo. "We wanted to run up onto the green and hug Marge, but we had to wait until the round was officially over to maintain golf etiquette. Once the round was over, most of us burst into tears with happiness and relief. The fact that our team had become the national champions in my first year of college was shocking and it only sank in when we officially received the awards."
A team championship in golf is a different set of emotions than playing in a junior tournament as an individual. That's true of professionals competing in events like the Ryder Cup or the Women's PGA Cup, and it is certainly true of collegiate golfers, especially for Yoo, who was a part of a team for the first time in her golfing life.
"My high school did not have a women's team, so I had always played alone," said Yoo. "Playing golf in college was my first experience of having a team to support and cheer me on. I would say that playing with a team is much more reassuring than playing alone. When I think back at our tournaments, my teammates would almost always play well when I was having a bad round. That feeling and being able to share my happiness when we win is extremely rewarding."
"I think that celebrating with a team is far more fulfilling," added Attiyeh. "Playing as part of team was a big change for me and changed the level of competitiveness. I want to play well and compete because I want to help my team, not because I have huge personal golf aspirations. The moments after our win felt like the perfect climax after a virtually perfect season and I think we all felt that way."
One of those moments was the awards ceremony, when CMS received its national championship trophy and individual plaques, donned the championship hats and t-shirts and let the magnitude of their accomplishment sink in.
"I think the awards ceremony afterward where Marge collected her individual award, Jodie (Burton) collected her coaching award, and we collected our award was a moment I will not forget," said Attiyeh. "We had such an amazing season and we knew Marge was about to leave to catch a flight to get back for graduation so we really relished each moment she was there."
Of course a championship experience is more than just the feeling at the finish line. Everything stays with you, from beginning to end, and the end carries well past the final buzzer, or final hole.
"My other favorite moment was the celebration afterwards," Attiyeh added. "We went to a quick dinner and rehashed the day like we would in any other tournament, enjoying our last time with Marge. I know now that we were so lucky to have the chemistry we did. Having a team you can laugh with and have fun with, even in pressure filled moments, is really underrated and is definitely unique about our group. Other teams would watch us warm up and think we were crazy and not serious enough, but I think belting out our favorite playlists and joking around before the round is what made us equipped to handle the pressure during the round."
And handling championship pressure can produce quite the championship memories.