College golf season preview

The marathon that is the college golf season begins again in earnest this week as many of the nation's top men's and women's programs play their first tournaments of the fall. Indeed, almost no collegiate sport endures a longer competitive season, as teams start their first practices in late August and hold their last prep sessions toward the end of May, when the NCAA Championships begin. While a lot is likely to happen between now and next spring, we offer these "Cliff Notes" -- five things you need to know as the 2005-06 season tees off.

1. These freshmen won't play like rookies
Within minutes of meeting Brian Harman or Jane Park, the nation's top incoming male and female golfers, one thing becomes perfectly clear: They don't scare easy. Then again, maybe that's to be expected when you're already the youngest American to ever play in the Walker Cup or have become the U.S. Women's Amateur champion before ordering your first dorm-room pizza.

Suffice it to say, the arrival of the 18-year-olds at Georgia and UCLA, respectively, are among the most anticipated of any freshmen duo in recent years. Before posting a score in a single tournament, both are considered contenders for national player-of-the-year honors.

At 5-foot-8 and just 140 pounds, Harman, a lefty from Savannah, Ga., packs a lot of power in a compact swing, regularly bombing his tee ball upwards of 300 yards. What many like about the former AJGA Player of the Year (joining Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Tracey Phillips as the only two-time honorees), is his fiery, no-nonsense approach on the course.

Conversely, Park's demeanor contains a nonchalance that at times can come across as indifference. Don't be fooled: The Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., native and 2004 Women's Amateur champ is as intense a competitor as you'll find. "She almost lulls you into thinking she doesn't care, and that's when she's got you right where she wants you," said Martha Kirouac, Park's captain on last year's U.S. Curtis Cup team.

Truth be told, while Harman and Park might be the year's marquee first-year recruits, a dozen more freshmen are likely to make immediate impacts. On the men's side, Tom Glissmeyer (Southern California), Trent Leon (Oklahoma State), Seung-Su Han (UNLV), Matthew Swam (Alabama) and Jon Curren (Vanderbilt) are all considered franchise players that could propel their teams to success.

"The quality of junior golf is such that players can step up and make the transition to the college game much quicker than ever before," contends Georgia coach Chris Haack.

Joining Park at UCLA are Tiffany Joh and Ryann O'Toole, both of whom made it to match play at last month's Women's Amateur and are likely to challenge for positions in the Bruins' starting five. At Duke, touted juniors Amanda Blumenherst and Jennie Lee are more than capable of stepping into the lineup and will be relied on heavily by Blue Devils coach Dan Brooks, who once again has just five players on his roster after the early departure of Brittany Lang. Other freshmen to follow include Taylor Leon (Georgia) and Nanette Hill (Wake Forest).

"The toughest thing these days for top players coming into college isn't the level of competition, but just getting comfortable with being in school," UCLA women's coach Carrie Forsyth said. "Learning your way around campus, learning how to budget your time. If they manage that all right, their games almost take care of themselves."

2. Parity might be taking a year off
There's no denying more programs have put themselves in position to contend for conference and national titles, investing in new practice facilities, stepping up recruiting efforts, implementing in-season conditioning regimens and improving the quality of their schedules. The rise of "unknowns" such as Georgia State's men's team, a top-15 finisher at NCAAs the past two years, or Virginia's women's squad, which in just two seasons of existence made it to nationals and had a player (Leah Wigger) finish second individually, is hardly the surprise it once had been.

Yet the standard preseason offering among college coaches that the race for the NCAA title is wide open might be a bit of an exaggeration in 2005-06. "In all honestly, there are two [men's] teams that have separated themselves from an experience and talent standpoint," says Georgia Tech men's coach Bruce Heppler. If Georgia or Oklahoma State aren't fighting for the title at Sunriver Resort in Oregon next June, "then something's gone wrong."

Indeed, after cruising to victory last year at Caves Valley, the top-ranked Bulldogs are the best bet in more than a decade to be the first team to claim back-to-back NCAA titles since Houston last did it in 1985. Despite losing David Denham, Haack's team returns All-Americans Kevin Kisner, Brendon Todd, Richard Scott and Chris Kirk, arguably the most underrated player in college golf. Add in Harmon and fellow recruits Michael Green and Adam Mitchell, and the Bulldogs bite seems only more ferocious.

Halfway across the country in Stillwater, Okla., the Cowboys bring back all but Alex Noren from a team that won seven tournaments in 2004-05 and held the top spot in the Golf World College Coaches poll for most of the season. Spanish sensation Pablo Martin, the nation's top freshman a year ago, appears even more comfortable playing in the U.S., and All-Americans Zack Robinson and Tyler Leon would like nothing more than to avenge their disappointing T-15 finish at nationals a year earlier. The only question might be how the team adapts to likely new head coach Mike McGraw now that Mike Holder will step aside to be Oklahoma State's athletic director.

On the women's side, a pair of squads also seems to have distanced themselves. UCLA (2004) and Duke (2002, 2005) have claimed three of the last four NCAA titles and look as if they'll be going at it again come next spring at Ohio State's Scarlet Course. "They're two programs that don't seem to have hiccups," says Arizona women's coach Greg Allen.

The Bruins lose All-American Charlotte Mayorkas, but bring in Park, O'Toole and Joh to join returning All-Americans Sarah Matthews, Hannah Jun and Amie Cochran, giving them the deepest team in the women's game. The Blue Devils return NCAA medallist Anna Grzebien and 2004 national Player of the Year Liz Janangelo, along with Jennifer Pandolfi.

3. So who wants to be national Player of the Year?
In contrast to the clash for the NCAA team title, the competition for who will be the top individual performers appears as confounding as a freshman organic chemistry class.

Oklahoma junior Anthony Kim, a U.S. Amateur Public Links semifinalist and a U.S. Amateur quarterfinalist this summer, as well as a member of the victorious U.S. Walker Cup squad, looks to have a slight edge on Oklahoma State's Martin (71.2 stroke average last year), East Tennessee State's Rhys Davies (five wins in 2004-05), Florida's Matt Every (low amateur at the U.S. Open) and Georgia's Harman. Add to this fivesome the reigning NCAA champ -- James Lepp of Washington -- and 2003 NCAA champ Alejandro Canizares of Arizona State.

"Nobody makes more birdies in a bunch than Anthony," one men's coach told me. "But he still had to prove he can stay focused for an entire season."

As for the women, Duke's Janangelo has the most talent of anyone but is coming off an inconsistent summer and a 2004-05 season in which she "slumped" with just nine top-10 finishes. Questions also surround Grzebien, who had plenty of confidence last May only to unexpectedly miss out on match play at last month's U.S. Women's Amateur. Others to watch include UCLA's Park and a trio of foreign standouts: Auburn's Maru Martinez (the U.S. Women's Amateur runner-up, from Venezuela), Pepperdine's Carolina Llano (Colombia) and Tennessee's Violeta Retamoza (Mexico).

Meanwhile, the player with the most momentum entering the season is Washington fifth-year senior Paige Mackenzie, who defeated Janangelo in the finals of the Trans National this past summer, finished T-13 at the U.S. Women's Open, reached the finals of the Pacific Northwest Amateur and the semifinals of the North and South, while also finishing T-10 at last year's NCAA Championship. More important, the back injury that sidelined her in 2002-03 seems to be just a painful memory now.

4. Losing your top gun doesn't hurt as much as you might think
It's hard to argue that either the UNLV men or the Arizona State women will be better off without national players of the year Ryan Moore and Louise Stahle this season, but their departures to the pro ranks don't mean the programs are faced with gnarly lies. The Rebels likely turned a psychological corner last spring when they won the ASU Thunderbird Invitational while Moore was playing in the Masters.

"I think it showed everybody that it wasn't just Ryan that made us a good team," UNLV senior Andres Gonzales said afterward. "We've got other guys capable of shooting low scores."

The ninth-ranked Rebels showed again they're poised to make a smooth transition when they claimed the season-opening Tucker Invitational last week by 10 shots over BYU, with Gonzales earning his first individual victory (and the first by a Rebel other than Moore since 2000).

While Sweden's Stahle completed only her freshman year in Tempe, ASU coach Melissa Luellen suggests she has had an impact beyond just one season. Stahle's performances helped return the Sun Devils to national and (even international) prominence, and in turn that made it easier for Luellen to recruit touted Spaniard Azahara Munoz for the 2005-06 team.

5. The fall's biggest competition won't necessarily take place on the course
As much as wading their way through the postseason tends to give college golf coaches gray hairs, the fall also has its share of tension. It's not the wins and losses in tournaments so much as trying to juggle the myriad other responsibilities, making sure their current team gets settled into a good routine on and off the course while simultaneously organizing the final recruiting push for this year's group of high school seniors.

"It's to the point at times where you just tell you family, don't talk to me until after November," joked Georgia women's coach Todd McCorkle.

The early signing period for players begins Nov. 9 and lasts one fretful week as coaches await the receipt of national letters of intent. In the few months leading up to it, coaches host potential recruits for official visits and do their best to sell them on their schools. Not a lot of attention is paid to those few weeks, but they may well be as important to the long-term health of a team as an individual tournament performance.

"Recruiting is really the lifeblood of a program," Ohio State women's coach Therese Hession said. "Coaches pay short shrift to it at your own risk."

Ryan Herrington is a senior writer for Golf World magazine