Sunday, May 22, 2016

Cheyenne Knight nears lead, but Alabama’s in big trouble at NCAA Championship

Alabama’s Cheyenne Knight
Alabama’s Cheyenne Knight (Tracy Wilcox)

EUGENE, Oregon – The Crimson Tide’s nightmare only deepened on Saturday.
After a disastrous first round on Friday that left No. 3 ranked Alabama 23rd among the 24-team field at the NCAA Championship, head coach Mic Potter noted his team’s practice-round woes off the tee.
Those errant drives may not have been as shocking as some believed. A tight Eugene Country Club course didn’t seem to mesh well with Alabama’s driving game.
“We have a lot of different types of players,” Potter said. “But we’ve done better on a little wider fairways this year, to be honest.”
Just a little better. The Crimson Tide entered the event having won three of its last five tournaments. The team has finished on the upper third of every leaderboard during the 2015-16 season.
And yet, through 36 holes, here they are: 21st among a 24-team field. Five back of the 54-hole cut (top 15 teams), eight behind the 72-hole match-play cut (top eight teams) and 23 back of leader USC, Golfweek‘s No. 1. Granted, this is the toughest competition in the most pressure-packed event of the year, but was this ever a curveball out of left field.
“The course is intimidating and I feel like the team’s let it get to them a little bit,” said freshman Cheyenne Knight. 
It started in the first round when Alabama dug itself near the bottom, with a 12-over total that left the Crimson Tide in that 23rd spot and mouths agape at their position.
“Yeah, I was shocked,” said senior Janie Jackson.
But it may have been equally shocking that Alabama couldn’t extract itself on Saturday.
The team went to dinner at Chipotle on Friday night and had each other fired up from conversation that took place.
Alabama players send each other a group text each night or morning before a round. Friday evening, the message was about keeping faith in one another.
All of that, and the Crimson Tide came to the course Saturday morning in good spirits. And yet, the team fell to last place in the morning and only bumped up three spots in the afternoon in a 4-over round.
“It just didn’t click,” said Jackson, who sits tied for 101st after consecutive 76s.
Three of Alabama’s five players are outside the top 100 on the leaderboard, and Emma Talley at T-85. But, things have clicked for one Alabama player.
While four-fifths of the lineup opened in 76 or worse Friday, the fifth posted a 3-under 69. She followed up Saturday with the same score for share of fourth place and a spot three of the lead of Miami’s Dewi Weber.
That player would be star freshman Cheyenne Knight, who has come on strong in the spring. Tabbed as the potential team X-factor in the preseason, Knight has actually exceeded expectations.
After a solid fall, the freshman won at the Darius Rucker Intercollegiate in March and followed up with a pair of top-fours in college events the next month. Not to mention, she placed T-29 in her LPGA debut earlier this month at the Volunteers of America Texas Shootout.
“I had a rough time at Regionals (where) I was a little fatigued, but I’ve been playing well and getting my swing grooved,” Knight said. “I felt good coming into this week for sure.”

Whereas Eugene Country Club hasn’t agreed with any other Alabama player this week – everybody but Knight has had both of their rounds over par – the freshman has found great comfort on the layout.
“The golf course, I love it,” Knight said. “It fits my eye, perfectly. My driver is my favorite club, I hit it pretty straight, and this course is tough, but playing out of the fairway is a lot easier.”
Indeed, Knight has been praised for her precision. It’s also helped that she’s diversified her game.
The freshman is a consistent right-to-left player, but she’s developed a slight fade this spring for when she needs it. That comes in handy at an NCAA Championship layout that Potter says favors a player who can knock it left-to-right.
Of course Knight’s success is quite bittersweet at the moment, with her team so far back.
Alabama can forget about worrying over the top-eight match-play cut at the moment. The group will need to concern itself with just making the top-15 cut Sunday.
The top nine individuals on teams that don’t make the 54-hole cut continue on, so Knight will likely be able to finish out the stroke-play portion of the event regardless of whether her team follows along.
For the second straight year, Alabama could have the NCAA individual champion (Talley in 2015) while missing out on match play.

For Knight, she feels it would be best to finish out with the whole team. Aside from the driving woes, Potter noted his group has struggled at times with pace on Eugene’s bentgrass surfaces that are slicker than the Bermuda greens they see back home. Ditto for the 5-6 foot putts that require more precision on matching break and speed.
Yet, Alabama isn’t toast. Much crazier things have happened than the third-ranked team in the country moving up six spots in one day.
Heck, as Potter noted Friday, Stanford was 17th after 36 holes last year and ended up winning it all.
A "C" change in practice may be coming regardless.
Potter expressed a bit of concern on Friday over his players kicking out errant practice round strikes and not wondering more about why their shots were going offline.
Jackson explained her thoughts on the matter.
“You can’t base your competitive rounds from what you did in the practice rounds,” Jackson said. “It’s kind of like you can’t base what you did on the driving range in the morning because half the time my best scores are after hit it poorly on the range in the morning.”
Depending on how the remainder of the tournament goes, Potter might suggest a shift from that mindset.
Using World No. 1 Jason Day as a model, Potter envisions the potential future.
“I was reading about Day, and when he practices, every shot is as if it’s the most important shot he’s ever hit,” Potter said. “So (it’s tough) to stand there and hit offline shots in practice and come out here and hit it straight.
Maybe after the tournament, we’ll talk about how precise we’ll need to be in practice.”
The Crimson Tide will certainly need to be precise on Sunday, otherwise they’ll be a 54-hole casualty.
par 144 (2x72) Yardage 6,331
135 Dewi Webber (Miami) 69 66
136 Anna Newell (Tennessee) 69 67 
137 Virginia Elena Carta (Duke) 69 68
138 Cheyenne Knight (Alabama) 69 69 (T4)
142 Leona Maguire (Duke) 72 70 (T10)
143 Bronte Law (UCLA) (T19)
146 Elizabeth Mallett (North Carolina) 75 71, Charlotte Thomas (Washington) 75 71 (T37)