By Wes Todd
AUBURN, Ala.--Any golf fan knows that the four majors – the Masters, U.S. Open, Open Championship and PGA Championship – are the most important tournaments of the season.
College golf has “majors” too. Except they might not be the same for all teams.
Auburn women’s head coach Melissa Luellen designated two tournaments as the Tigers’ “majors” for the fall – the events with the strongest fields and truest bellwethers of the team’s progress.
A seventh-place finish at the Mason Rudolph Championship and a tie for fifth at the Battle at the Beach later, and the third-year Auburn coach found herself quite pleased with the results of the first half of the season.
“We had all top-10 finishes,” Luellen said, “and two top-five finishes. I was especially proud of the last tournament we played in Cabo San Lucas against a very good field. I thought our performance in (the majors) was pretty good.”
But “pretty good” is a stepping stone to bigger and better things, she said.
“My desire is that we would have more opportunities to win a tournament,” she said. “That’s why we’re here to compete for championships and tournament victories. There were some times we had to count a higher score. We’ve got to have all five players having an opportunity to count.”
That said, Luellen knows that playing tougher fields matters when it comes tournament time. A team’s GolfStat ranking – similar to RPI in basketball and other sports – is the determining factor in whether or not a team makes the NCAA Regional field. A top-50 ranking is usually enough to earn a bid; Auburn’s current ranking is No. 34, thanks to the Tigers’ performances against high-profile fields.
“The founder of GolfStat always claimed that as long as your team can mentally and emotionally handle it, try to play the hardest schedule you can find,” Luellen said. “I have some mixed feelings about that. It’s important to play some tournaments where you feel like you can go in and win and get that confidence. Then you get to the tougher fields, and with that confidence, you might be knocking on the door to win those tournaments as well.”
Auburn’s individuals showed that mental toughness this fall, putting together several strong tournaments. Senior Michaela Owen had the low scoring average of the fall at 72.50 with a top-10 finish, three top-20s and six of 12 rounds at even par or better. Sophomore Elena Hualde was right behind Owen with a 72.92 average, a top-10, and six rounds at par or better. And senior Kelli Murphy had Auburn’s best individual finish of the fall, tying for sixth at the Maryb S. Kauth Invitational in October.
“Elena started like she always does, she always seems to start well,” Luellen said. “Michaela had a very solid, consistent fall. And Kelli, once we moved her out of the No. 1 spot on the first day, she did very well.” Headed into the spring season, Murphy and Owen have both moved into the top-10 at Auburn in career scoring average. Murphy is ninth at 74.84, and Owen is 10th at 75.04. Luellen said that finishing their careers with their names in the record book has been a motivating factor for the Tigers’ two seniors.
“These seniors, they want to leave their mark,” Luellen said. “They’re both trying to get their scoring averages in our record book, and they both have the opportunity to do that. I think that has motivated them quite a lot. You’ve got to give Coach (Kim) Evans a lot of credit for recruiting such quality young ladies. They’ve got talent.”
And more talent is on the way in the spring. Julie McCarthy, a standout junior player from Ireland, enrolls in January to begin her Auburn career. Local standout Brooke Sansom of Pike Road will also join the team in January, but will redshirt the spring semester and have four years of eligibility beginning in the fall of 2018.
“We add Julie in January, and that adds more competition,” Luellen said. “So nobody really feels safe (in the starting lineup), and from a coaches’ standpoint, that’s a good place to be. Julie graduated in June, so she has not had any school to distract her from practice time. She’s going to come in here ready to go.”
When the spring season begins, all eyes will be on Auburn the third week of March as the Evans Derby Experience returns to the Auburn University Club March 18-20. A revival of the Derby Invitational, which was played annually until 2008, it will be the first regular-season tournament Auburn has hosted in a decade.
Luellen said that numerous amenities would be available to fans that came out to the event, which is free and open to the public. And golf fans in the Auburn area will be able to see some of the nation’s top teams compete on a course that will host a pair of postseason events in the coming years – the 2019 NCAA Women’s Regional and the 2020 NCAA Men’s Regional.
“We’re so excited,” she said. “We have such an amazing field. I just want this event to be something the people of Auburn would like to come to. We’ve got a sponsor for snacks and drinks, so no one is going to have to shell out any money to entertain family. The Auburn Family coming to a golf event, I think that will be really fun.”
Tough fields in that event and the others during the spring will help prepare the Tigers for postseason play as they look to return to the NCAA Championship for the first time since 2013. And Luellen thinks the team is heading in the right direction.
“We believe we can compete with anybody,” she said. “In the past they maybe have not had that belief. Knowing that they’re becoming more and more competitive every day within the team, that’s been huge.”