Tulane golfers on roll heading into NCAA Championships

NEW ORLEANS — Tulane women’s golf coach Andrew Pratt knew his young team would be good this year. He had no idea it would become the school’s best ever, with a chance to make more history at the NCAA Championships this week.

The 14th-ranked Green Wave never has finished better than 15th in four previous trips to nationals, but it also never has entered the tournament on this kind of a roll. With freshmen filling three of the five spots in the lineup, Tulane destroyed the field at the Conference USA Championships in Gulf Shores, Ala., winning by a school-record 27 strokes. It followed that effort by placing second at the NCAA East Regional in Auburn, Ala., recording the best 54-hole total in program history at 12-under par 852.

Moving over one state for the NCAA Championships, the Wave will try to stay just as hot at the University of Georgia Golf Course in Athens, Ga. Tulane tees off for the first round Tuesday at 11:58 a.m.

“I’d probably be lying if I said I expected this much success,” Pratt said. “They are extremely talented, but with freshmen there’s always a learning curve, and for us, the learning curve was in the fall. This team has a legitimate shot at doing something.”

After a slow start in the fall, Tulane has finished fourth or better at all six of its spring tournaments. With no All-American on the roster, the Green Wave relies on balance, rarely counting a bad round.

In college golf, a team counts the four best scores of its five players for each round, leaving little room for error.

“I know most teams have three really good players, and the fourth is average or the fifth is average,” said freshman Madison Opfer, who shot 6-under 210 to finish third individually at the NCAA East Regional. “Our team, we’re all equal. People ask who’s the best player, and we all say, ‘we are’ about the same.”

Maribel Lopez Porras, Tulane’s lone senior, is on the verge of breaking school records for career (74.60) and single-season stroke averages (73.38). Golfweek.com ranks Opfer, sophomore Gemma Dryburgh and freshman Emily Penttila among the nation’s top 100 players.

Freshman Silvia Garces tied for fourth at the Conference USA Championships when Tulane’s five players were within four strokes of each other.

“The way we’re playing right now, we’re really confident that we’re going to do a good job and represent Tulane,” Garces said. “Our main goal is to be in the last group starting the final round.”

Their recent results make that a real possibility. Tulane finished 12 strokes ahead of fifth-ranked Arkansas at the NCAA East Regional, also beating No. 8 UCLA, No. 11 North Carolina and No. 13 Virginia.

They won’t be intimidated by the competition. Although they struggled on the same University of Georgia course at the Fall Preview in October, placing a season-worst 14th out of 18 teams, the familiarity should help on their second chance.

“It’s a difficult course because there’s a lot of undulations in the greens and the fairways are right to left, left to right and up and down,” Opfer said. “It’s huge to have been able to play it beforehand, and we get two practice rounds on top of that.”

Their confidence level is at an all-time high.

“We’re just going to do the same thing we’ve been doing all spring,” Pratt said. “This team has just gotten better every week. They’re getting smarter. They’ve learned where not to make mistakes, and they’re making more birdies. That’s the name of the game.”