Decision to stay in school pays off for Arkansas’ Maria Fassi, as she claims NCAA women’s individual title

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It felt like a foregone conclusion when the NCAA Women’s Championship began last Friday that University of Arkansas senior Maria Fassi would win the individual title. Sure, nothing is a given in golf, and there were any number of capable players competing at Blessings Golf Club in Fayetteville, Ark., in the finale of the 2018-’19 college golf season. But this was Fassi’s home course, and none of her peers had the local knowledge that the 21-year-old possessed on the demanding par-73 track.

Oh, and the fact that many consider Fassi the most dynamic player in college golf didn’t hurt either.

Fassi’s fiery personality belies her massive talent, the native of Mexico coming into nationals with nine career individual victories as well earning the Annika Award for the nation’s top collegiate player in 2018. Her final season with the Razorbacks has been consistent with a win at the SEC Championship victory, five top-five showins and no finish worse than a T-25 in nine starts, while carding a 71.22 average that’s a blend of power and precision.

It also included a stop at LPGA Q series last November, where she competed as an amateur and finished 32nd in the eight-round, two-week test, earning an LPGA Tour card. Yet Fassi had set her sights on nationals at The Blessings since her early days at Arkansas, and didn’t want to give up the dream of wrapping up her college career in front of her home fans. So she deferred her LPGA Tour card until after the end of the college season.

The decision paid off when Fassi shot a bogey-free five-under 68 on Monday to cap an eight-under 211 in the rain-shortened portion of the championship. (On Saturday, a thunder storms wiped out play for most of the day, forcing the NCAA Women’s Golf Committee to shorten the stroke-play competition from 72 to 54 holes.) It was four strokes better than Florida’s Sierra Brooks, who posted a final-round 73 in the morning wave and waited to see if anyone could catch her.

That’s what Fassi did, starting her afternoon round at three under after rounds of 72-71. She proceed to make birdies on the Nos. 2, 6 and 8 to grab a two-stroke lead at the turn. Two more back-nine birdies left no doubt, even as she had to wait out a hour-plus weather delay on to close out her round. Fassi had a chance at a sixth birdie on the 18th hole, but the 25-footer just slid by. It was just the third time in NCAA history that an individual winner claimed the title on their home course (joining Cindy Schreyer, Georgia, 1984; and Caroline Keggi, New Mexico, 1987) and just the second time an Arkansas player won the individual title (Stacy Lewis, 2007).

If Fassi seems familiar, it’s likely from her performance last month at the inaugural Augusta National Women’s Amateur, where she was locked in a final-round duel with Wake Forest senior (and defending NCAA champion) Jennifer Kupcho. Fassi fell four strokes short, but her charisma connected with many, and her runner-up finish fueled her postseason run.

“I think not winning at Augusta was probably the best thing that could happened to me,” Fassi said. “I can say that now … not winning was probably what needed to happen. I was going to learn a lot more just coming in second than pulling it off. I hate losing, especially when I’m that close. Coming here, I knew what I was going to be put up against. I knew the golf course. I knew it was going to be hard. I like these conditions they keep me focused.”

Speaking of Kupcho, the 22-year-old Colorado native was looking to make NCAA history in trying to become the first golfer to repeat as an individual champion. But Kupcho stumbled in the first round, posting a five-over 78, and never was able to recover. Her seven-over 226 left her in T-22 after finishing second and first the last two years at nationals.

As the individual title was settled cleanly on Monday, the weather delay created issues in trying determine the eight teams that would advance to the match-play portion of the championship to crown a team winner. Six schools still had golfers on the course on Monday when darkness forced play to be suspended. Among the teams still on the course are Texas (+6), Duke (+14) and USC (+17), each easily inside the cut line and jockeying to see who will be the top three seeds in match play. Purdue and Northwestern also had more golf to finish, but are on the wrong side of the cut.

Meanwhile, Auburn has two golfers still to finish their third rounds as the sits in eighth place, three strokes better than Illinois. (The Illini, making their first appearance ever at nationals, had finished up its third round on Monday morning and had returned to their hotel rooms before coming back to the course to warm up in the event of a playoff.)

Auburn’s Mychael O’Berry (one hole) and Kaleigh Telfer (two holes) will return to play on Tuesday, and if they can keep from going three over on their remaining holes, they’ll secure the last match-play spot.

Here’s how the leader board looks right now:

With the quarterfinals and semifinals of match play set for Tuesday, Arkansas would seem to have a distinction home-course advantage, even while only being a No. 4 seed (it appears they’d be paired with Wake Forest in the quarterfinals, with a Fassi-Kupcho rematch potentially in store). USC has been the No. 1 team in the country for much of the year, and given the unusual history of only Pac-12 teams winning NCAAs since they adopted the match-play format in 2015, it would suggest it might be the Trojans time. Others will tell you not to sleep on Arizona, the defending national champions with four players back from last year’s winning roster.

Suffice it to say, with Fassi claiming the individual title, the predictable portion of the NCAA Women’s Championship has officially come to an end.

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