When the NCAA cancelled its women's golf regional in Baton Rouge over the course being wet, it led to an angry outburst from college golfers – and another tournament offering to take up the slack and host.
First, a little background. The Baton Rouge, Louisiana NCAA Women’s Regional was cancelled on May 12 due to tournament officials deeming the host course, while playable, was “not playable at a championship level.”
According to Golf Magic, the course had been hit with rain the night before the event was set to begin and although the NCAA said the course was playable (“though not at a championship level.”)
This effectively eliminated 12 of the 18 top schools vying for the NCAA Golf Championship. Golf WRX noted, “Without a single ball being hit, this decision meant that the top six seeds in the regional advance to nationals and the top three individuals of the six that were competing. Those teams are LSU, Mississippi, Baylor, Oregon, Maryland and Alabama, with the following players Karen Fredgaard, Houston; Nataliya Guseva, Miami (Fla.); and Hanna Alberto, Sam Houston. Eliminated were seeds 7-18: Oregon State, Houston, Miami (Fla.), North Texas, Purdue, Mississippi State, Tulsa, Sam Houston State, Kennesaw State, East Tennessee State, Jacksonville State and Quinnipiac.”
According to Golf WRX, Brad Hurlbut, the Director of Athletics at Fairleigh Dickinson, announced the news, noting “Look, this is one of the most gut-wrenching decisions and announcements that I’ve ever been a part of. Even though the course is playable, it’s not playable at a championship level.”
The statement was understandably received with shock and anger by the players of the teams who felt cheated out of the opportunity to win a place at the NCAA Women’s Championship, who yelled, “You should be ashamed of yourselves” and “Thank you for ending our careers!” directed at Hurlbut.
And around the golf community, the reaction was more or less the same. Golf Magic noted, “The college golfers have worked extremely hard to reach this stage and for many of them, the opportunity to progress has now been snatched away after yet another poor and lazy move by the NCAA.”
Note: The images of the course were posted on social media. It probably goes without saying that they went viral. And the golf community didn’t disappoint in the reaction that followed.
Michelle Wie posted four paragraphs, including the note, “No one can control weather but if there’s a chance that you can play, you HAVE TO let these girls compete. You should only cancel an event after you try EVERYTHING.”
“There’s a lot I could say but @NCAA, you FAILED these kids,” said Stacy Lewis.
Max Homa, after seeing the NCAA had made the decision without asking the athletes whether they thought the course was playable, had to agree: “One of the dumber things I’ve ever seen. Seniors, U Deserve Better.”
The Indy Star quoted Purdue women’s golf coach Devon Brouse, who believed that had the NCAA looked, it would have found opportunities to “piece together a championship” by playing possibly nine holes Monday afternoon after the morning rain. The same scenario played out Tuesday when another nine holes could’ve been played once the rain stopped.
“There are all kinds of things you can do if you're proactive,” Brouse said. “You’ve got to play nine holes this day or 12 holes that day and as many holes as you can play, and you do it using shotgun starts. If half a hole is flooded, you might have to turn it into a par 3. There are all kinds of things in the rules of golf that allow you to do whatever you need to do. If you couldn't play on a saturated course, we would never have a British Open.”
Brouse said Nancy Cross, Purdue’s Senior Associate Athletics Director and Senior Woman Administrator, lobbied the NCAA to extend the regional another day. After last year’s championship was canceled due to COVID-19, the committee could’ve petitioned for an exemption to allow the regional to be extended through Thursday.
“We asked about that and the response was – ‘Page 15, Section 4 of the manual says you cannot play beyond the designated three days,’” Brouse said “They just weren't willing to consider it.”
“The college golfers have worked extremely hard to reach this stage and for many of them, the opportunity to progress has now been snatched away after yet another poor and lazy move by the NCAA.”
The basketball tournament had, in addition to other problems, substandard workout and training facilities (Mark Emmert blamed that on “poor communication”), while the women’s volleyball tournament was pared down from 64 teams to 48, had poor-quality facilities and had poor competition facilities and no play-by-play coverage (NCAA blamed this on the pandemic).
But what the NCAA wouldn’t do for its athletes, the sports community did. Whirlwind Golf Club at Wild Horse Pass in Chandler, Arizona hosted the “Let Them Play Classic,” a consolation tournament, on May 20-21.
The Let Them Play Classic was the creation of Sam “Riggs” Bozoian from Barstool Sports, who after seeing NCAA’s decision and the social media backlash, worked to find a solution to host a tournament in Arizona prior to the NCAA Women’s Championship Finals to be held at Grayhawk Golf Club in Scottsdale, Arizona, May 24 – 26. Riggs reached out to Troon, which manages 51 golf courses in Arizona, to help find a course capable of hosting a championship-level event in less than a week.
Troon officials connected Riggs with Whirlwind Golf Club General Manager Louie Unga late Thursday afternoon (May 13th) at which time Unga and the Gila River Indian Community, owners of Whirlwind Golf Club, offered to host the event free of charge. Riggs and the Barstool Sports team worked with the NCAA and school officials from Oregon State, Houston, Miami FL, North Texas, Purdue, Mississippi State, Tulsa, Sam Houston State, Kennesaw State, East Tennessee State, Jacksonville State and Quinnipiac on travel arrangements and compliance regulations.
In order for the event to meet compliance standards, the players must compete as "unattached individuals," though they will be allowed to wear team gear and can be identified as playing for their team. An individual title will be awarded, but any team competition at the Let Them Play Classic will be unofficial. Barstool Sports’ goal of covering team expenses will also be permitted, including transportation, lodging and meals.
The Let Them Play Classic was played on Whirlwind’s two Gary Panks-designed golf courses –The Cattail and Devil’s Claw.
“The opportunity to be a part of this event and to help these amazing collegiate athletes finish their seasons on a high note was more than appealing to us,”said Unga. “We were excited to welcome these golfers to our facility and looked forward to a great few days of competition.”
And honestly, in a season of cancelled tournaments and problem politics, Let Them Play became the cavalry that rode over the hill in time to save the day, which saw North Texas, which had driven seven hours to play, taking home the top prize.
Golfweek noted, "As the NCAA Championship was just getting started, Barstool’s Let Them Play Classic arguably stole the show, particularly on social media. The exposure, for a mid-major team like North Texas, will go a long way."
“I think the exposure is by far the most they’ve ever seen,” said Mike Akers, North Texas coach. “We’re a really good team, played solid all year. I think the media exposure, social media exposure will help in recruiting, kind of get our name out there. My phone’s been blowing up from countless people. I know there’s a lot more attention on this than a normal event.”