Cullowhee, N.C. - Western Carolina opens play in the 2017 Southern Conference Women's Golf Championship this Sunday, April 23, seeking its third team conference championship. The 54-hole event features 18 holes each day with the winner garnering the league's automatic bid to the NCAA post-season.
The 24th edition of the women's conference champion-crowning event will be played Sunday through Tuesday, April 23-25 at the par-72, 6,153-yard Country Club of Lexington in Lexington, S.C. It is the first time the event will be held at the Ed Riccaboni course, which was established in 1964.
The Country Club of Lexington course has what first-year WCU head coach Sara Anne McGetrick called "pretty healthy par 4s" on the front nine.
"The course really suits everyone's game; it has some longer holes for the long drivers with some shorter holes that will require some precision. Overall, though, it looks like it is going to be a good test," said McGetrick.
Furman won its second straight SoCon title in 2016, shooting rounds of 298, 285 and 292 to claim a 14-shot win over runner-up Chattanooga at Savannah Quarters in Pooler, Georgia. The Mocs' Megan Woods won the individual championship after five playoffs holes after tying with the Paladins' Alice Chen through regulation.
Through the 2016-17 regular season, four SoCon teams rank inside the top 100 through GolfStat, paced by Furman which is ranked 10th overall. A combined four Paladin golfers rank inside the individual top 100. ETSU's Loy Hee Ying led the league in scoring average this season at 72.15 which ranks her 58th nationally. Her seasonal average is just ahead of Furman's Haylee Harford, who is the league's top-ranked golfer by GolfStat at No. 28 nationally.
The Paladins are the preemptive favorite entering the event, finishing in the top six in all nine of its events this academic year, pacing the conference with a 289.22 team stroke average.
Senior Ashley Thompson ranks second on the WCU squad in stroke average -- and 31st in the conference overall at 78.54. She will play as the No. 1 golfer for the Catamounts in the opening round of the conference champion. Thompson twice paced the Catamounts in tournament play this season, both coming in early March in consecutive tournaments in Florida including a career-best, fifth-place finish at the Bulldog Florida Invitational.
Sophomore Natalia Villavicencio led the Catamounts at four different tournaments this season including back-to-back events leading up to the conference championship. The Santiago, Chile, native finished the regular season strong, posting a runner-up finish at the Mimosa Hills Intercollegiate in the final tune-up tournament. Villavicencio's seasonal scoring average of 75.90 leads WCU overall and ranks 14th in the SoCon.
Junior transfers Alyssa Morahan and Amanda Floberg will make their first starts in the conference championship event. Morahan ranks 33rd in scoring average in the league at 79.96 while Floberg is 41st overall at 80.44 strokes per round. Rounding out WCU's scoring five will be senior Bethany Galloway who has battled injury throughout her final season. Galloway is 43rd overall with a seasonal stroke average of 80.44.
Paired with golfers from Wofford and The Citadel, Western Carolina's scoring five will go off on the back nine beginning at 8:31 am on Sunday.
"I'm really looking for our scoring five to go out and just enjoy playing," said McGetrick on her squad entering the conference championship event. "I don't want them to worry about playing great; I just want them to be relaxed and enjoy the experience -- to play without the fear of the results. The team has been doing a great job of that in practice leading up to the conference championship, and we've been playing well. I'm hopeful that we can carry that over into the tournament."
Western Carolina won its first-ever SoCon title in 2003, dethroning nine-time defending champion, Furman, by six strokes in an event hosted at the Waynesville Inn, Golf Resort & Spa. Three players -- Brandy Andersen, Line Cordes and Rebecca Twiner -- each earned all-conference plaudits after the ground-breaking championship for the WCU squad, which was inducted into the WCU Athletics Hall of Fame in 2014.
After a runner-up finish in 2006, WCU claimed its second conference championship in a rain-shortened, 36-hole event held at Patriot's Point in Mt. Pleasant, S.C., in 2007. The Catamounts rallied from down five strokes after the opening round to edge Furman and former league foe, College of Charleston, by four strokes.
All told, the Paladins have produced a league-best 14 individual medalists, while Chattanooga has four and Appalachian State, College of Charleston, Western Carolina and UNCG own one each.
The tournament tees off at 8:00 am (subject to change) each day. Live stats can be found at BirdieFire.com. The winner will earn the league's automatic bid to the NCAA regionals. The NCAA field will be announced live on the Golf Channel at 11 a.m. EDT on Thursday, April 27.