Following year of challenges, ASU women’s golf begins NCAA championship play at Grayhawk

The men’s and women’s NCAA golf championships have started a three-year residency at Grayhawk Golf Club, the culmination of a longstanding relationship with Arizona State. The women began play Friday. (Photo courtesy NCAA)

SCOTTSDALE – Arizona State has the most NCAA Division I Women’s Golf Championship appearances (36) and wins (eight) of any school. Yet decades have passed since the Sun Devils last hosted the championship tournament.

When sophomore Amanda Linner teed off at 12:36 p.m. Friday at Grayhawk Golf Club in Scottsdale, the Sun Devils opened championship stroke play in their home state for the first time since 1992. They haven’t enjoyed much of a home-field advantage in that time. ASU is 13th out of 24 teams, which would be good enough to survive the weekend, but only the top eight will move on after Monday.

Despite an uneven first day, the team is grateful for the long-awaited opportunity.

“How lucky am I that I get to play my last amateur tournament in my home away from home?” said fifth-year golfer Olivia Mehaffey, who led the Sun Devils with a 1-over-par 73.

The men’s and women’s golf championships are about to begin a three-year residency at Grayhawk, the culmination of a longstanding relationship with ASU. Initially, in 2017, Grayhawk and ASU won the right to host both tournaments in 2020, 2021 and 2022.

Flags of participating schools circle one of the lakes at Grayhawk Golf Club. Twenty-four teams are participating in the event. (Photo by Henry Greenstein/Cronkite News)

On March 11, 2020, the Sun Devils were in Hawaii at the Dr. Donnis Thompson Invitational, where they won by a dominant 19-stroke margin, hitting their stride with a couple tournaments to go before the highly anticipated championship in their home state. But earlier that day, the World Health Organization had declared COVID-19 a pandemic, and the next day, the NCAA canceled the season.

A year later, the women’s tournament finally arrived at Grayhawk’s Raptor golf course, on which three of ASU’s five starters made their championship debuts Friday.

“This experience is just paramount,” ASU coach Missy Farr-Kaye said. “Your sophomores are really freshmen, and your freshmen are freshmen, and it’s a whole different ball game.”

The most experienced player in the squad is Mehaffey, a product of Northern Ireland and “a very special young lady, and a very special Sun Devil,” Farr-Kaye said. The lone senior on the 2019-20 squad, Mehaffey decided to return for a fifth year after the season ended abruptly. Her lengthy tenure provides a link between the current Sun Devils and the 2017 championship-winning group, also coached by Farr-Kaye, from Mehaffey’s freshman year.

Arizona State’s Olivia Mehaffey (center) makes her second stroke on the first hole at Grayhawk, as Georgia’s Candice Mahe (left) and Baylor’s Britta Snyder look on. (Photo by Henry Greenstein/Cronkite News)

“I’ve told the girls stories — what it’s like, how it’s been,” Mehaffey said, “and I think that definitely helps the team. Obviously, it’s a very different team to my first year.”

This year’s Sun Devils entered the championship ranked No. 10, and have had a successful season since returning from their forced hiatus. A native of Surprise, freshman Ashley Menne shot a 66 in the second round of her collegiate debut. Mehaffey recorded a program-record 62 at the Clover Cup in March.

And Swedish sophomore Linn Grant, who has finished in the top 10 in all seven of her tournament appearances this season, is a finalist for the ANNIKA Award for the nation’s top player in Division I women’s golf. Grant, who entered Friday as Golfstat’s No. 1 player, double-bogeyed the first hole but settled down to finish with a 3-over 75.

The season has borne one significant, unforeseen challenge: Farr-Kaye spent much of the season undergoing treatment for colon cancer. She lost her father and sister to cancer, and has already survived breast cancer twice. Mehaffey told Cronkite News in March that Farr-Kaye said to the team, “Listen, I tell you girls to be resilient and be gritty every day, and I’m gonna do that.”

The Sun Devils needed plenty of fortitude to get through last week’s Columbus Regional, where they ultimately tied for second in their group with reigning 2019 champions Duke. They trailed Georgia, and are grouped with the Bulldogs, as well as the Baylor Bears, in stroke play.

Both competitors bottomed out Friday, finishing tied for 20th and tied for 22nd, respectively. The lone bright spot for Baylor was sixth-year senior Elodie Chapelet, one of only four golfers to finish under par on the day.

Farr-Kaye said there’s no home-field advantage in the national championship. But if the Sun Devils aren’t already more familiar with the course than their competitors, they’ll certainly need to get well acquainted over the next few days, since Grayhawk will also host the championships in 2022 and 2023.

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“I think it’s a great opportunity for the school to showcase what golf means to the university,” said Connor Smith, who handles media relations for the team, “and to have it three years in a row — we can learn from our mistakes.

“No one’s ever had this opportunity,” he added, “so we plan on taking advantage of that.”

Despite concerns from coaches about how a golf tournament in late May would handle the scorching Arizona heat, the temperature in Scottsdale on Friday was a mild 82 degrees. However, weather conditions did affect the competitors. No team finished even or below par on the day, and to hear Farr-Kaye and Mehaffey tell it, the considerable winds played a significant role.

“It was by far the toughest it’s ever been — I’ve played here many times — with the wind,” Mehaffey said, “and the rough’s grown up, and it’s cutting in a little bit.”

She said she expects the weather to be calmer when the Sun Devils tee off earlier on upcoming days.

Preliminary stroke play continues through Sunday, at which point the top 15 teams and nine other individuals will advance. Monday brings another cut down to eight teams, before the tournament kicks into gear with match play on Tuesday and Wednesday.

The Sun Devils hope to still be battling then.

“The whole championship flips, and then you go into match play — and my team is just eager to get to that point,” Farr-Kaye said.

Henry Greenstein hehn-ree greens-tein (he/him)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Henry Greenstein is pursuing a master’s degree in sports journalism. He previously studied linguistics at Washington University in St. Louis.