Savannah, Ga. (Oct. 6, 2011) – As the sunlight began to fade behind the large clubhouse at The Landings Club’s Palmetto Course late Thursday afternoon, a large cheer went up. That’s when Georgia’s non-playing captain Sissy Gann brought out three bottles of champagne and the celebration commenced.
Rallying from as much as a five-stroke deficit, Georgia, behind the stellar performance of 14-year-old Rachel Dai of Suwanee, registered a two-stroke victory over Texas and Tennessee to successfully defend its USGA Women’s State Team Championship on the 6,067-yard, par-72 layout.
Dai, along with veteran Laura Coble of Augusta and 17-year-old Amira Alexander of Alpharetta, posted a 54-hole total of 16-over-par 448 in the 3-count-2 team format.
Georgia is the only team to have won multiple Women’s State Team titles – it also won in 2005 – and joins the Texas men as the only teams to have claimed three State Team Championships since the biennial competitions were started in 1995.
Dai, a Milton High School freshman, shot an even-par 72 in a final round that included four birdies over the last nine holes to secure individual medalist honors at 2-under 214, edging Tennessee’s Calle Nielson by one stroke.
Coble added a 5-over 77, while Alexander’s 79, her best round of the championship, was not counted.
Texas and Tennessee shared second at 18-over 450, but Texas earned the silver medal based on a better score from its third golfer; Robin Burke (84) edged Maggie Scott (87) by three shots. Tennessee received the bronze medal.
Maryland, the 18- and 36-hole leader, wound up fourth at 451, followed by Mississippi (456), Florida (458) and New Jersey (458), which had its best showing ever at the Women’s State Team.
After the scores were made official, Coble was overcome with emotion. She hugged former Georgia captain Pat Clarke, along with Gann, her teammates and other well-wishers. Fellow competitors, including Savannah native and Kentucky player Martha Leach, also congratulated Coble, who played on the winning Georgia teams in 2005 and 2009. But this title had special meaning since it came in front of the “home” crowd.
Georgia joined the Minnesota men and women (2001) and the Texas men (2007) as the only teams to win State Team titles on home soil.
“It’s just unbelievable,” said the 47-year-old Coble. “It’s just hard to describe. The Landings has been so wonderful to us. [Georgia] is my home and where I’ve grown up, and they’ve been wonderful to us.”
Added Dai, who made an exquisite up-and-down par from a greenside bunker at No. 18 to help clinch the title: “The fact that it was at home was the biggest thing. It was so awesome when I found out [the championship] was in Savannah. I have been here before and I’ve always enjoyed coming back here. It was so amazing.”
So was her play, especially over the final nine holes. It began with a 15-yard chip-in birdie from above a greenside bunker at No. 11. Then at the par-3 13th, she holed a 15-footer for birdie and followed it up by making a challenging downhill 6-foot slider at the par-3 15th. At 16, she hit her best drive of the day and her 124-yard 8-iron approach stopped 12 feet below the flagstick. She converted the birdie putt before making solid pars over the final two holes, including the up and down from the bunker at 18.
“I was fortunate to have a very nice [uphill] lie,” said Dai of the bunker shot. “I knew I couldn’t land it on [the green], so I tried my best to land it on the fringe and let it trickle down [to 3 feet from the hole]. Things just went my way.”
Georgia’s victory came after a wild and windy day that saw four different teams hold the lead during various portions of the final round.
Maryland was the first to falter as 17-year-old Elyse Smidinger struggled to find her form from the first two days. After rounds of 68-72, the first of which included nine birdies (eight in a row), the Crofton resident could muster only a 79. With Andrea Kraus’ 76, Maryland shot 155 for the day, which put them three shots behind Georgia.
Early in the final round, it appeared as though Texas might run away from the field. The team held a five-stroke lead after nine holes before struggling down the stretch. Mina Hardin birdied four of her first six holes before hitting her drive out of bounds at the par-5 seventh, leading to a double-bogey 7.
“That was totally unexpected,” said the 2010 USGA Senior Women’s Amateur champion and 2011 runner-up from Fort Worth. “I rushed my shot. I came over it and [my ball] hit the cart path. But stuff happens.”
That double bogey proved to be a bad omen for Texas. Hardin wound up shooting a team-best 73, while Anna Schultz of Rockwall, the 2007 USGA Senior Women’s Amateur champion, carded an 80 after opening the event with rounds of 72-75. Texas still had a chance at the end, but Hardin made a disappointing bogey at 18 and Schultz bogeyed the 17th hole to give Texas its second runner-up finish at this championship. The team finished one stroke behind Pennsylvania in the inaugural Women’s State Team 16 years ago.
“Of course we are disappointed,” said Hardin. “You come in with a good team and you think you have a good chance. You’re looking good going into the last day, so not being able to finish the job was a little disappointing.
“But it was a good tournament. We showed well and did our best. We’ll make it one day.”
As Texas faltered, Tennessee moved into the lead by one stroke with just three holes remaining. Nielson, a recent University of Virginia graduate from Nashville who advanced out of last week’s Stage II LPGA Tour Qualifying School tournament in Florida, birdied the par-3 15th hole to get to one under for the round.
But like Texas, Tennessee failed to close strong. Nielson bogeyed No. 17 and teammate Jennifer Lucas of Knoxville double-bogeyed the same hole to drop back into a share of second. Nielson finished with an even-par 72 and was one of only two players to complete 54 holes in red figures (1-under 215). Lucas wound up with an 80.
“I just couldn’t get any putts to fall,” said a mentally exhausted Nielson, who has played 12 or 13 rounds in the last two weeks. “And the conditions were really tough. I played well. I’m coming off a lot of golf right now. And today it was just harder because I had to focus twice as hard because the wind was switching.
“This was more exciting than a college event. I didn’t know if I could feel that again. I had butterflies going down 18 knowing what was going on. This is why we play. I had a really good time this week.”
Georgia, playing ahead of the final three groups of Texas, Maryland and Tennessee, took full advantage of the teams faltering behind them. Coble wasn’t fully aware of the fluidity of the leaderboard, but her caddie, Dori Carter, a current LPGA Tour member who was on the winning Georgia side in 2009, mentioned that Texas was starting to come back to the pack.
Coble listened, but also knew she couldn’t worry about what was happening to the other teams.
“We still have to play,” said Coble, who hoped her bogey at the closing hole wouldn’t be costly. “We’ve got to finish as strong as we can and get the ball in the hole as fast as we can.”
Even when someone mentioned that Georgia had won, Coble remained cautious until the USGA made the results official.
That’s when the celebration got crazy with champagne being sprayed on anyone associated with the team.
“We did it all together,” said Coble. “There’s no one superstar. It’s very special.”
David Shefter is a USGA senior staff writer. E-mail him at email@example.com.