Auburn's underclassmen leading Tigers

It wasn't hard to spot Auburn's Kim Evans last Sunday at the conclusion of the Lady Puerto Rico Classic. All you had to do is look for the women's golf coach with the Cheshire-cat grin on her face after the Tigers had won by five shots over top-ranked Georgia and Oklahoma State. For the second straight tournament, the least experienced player on her roster suddenly began channeling her inner Annika, turning the heads of many in the college golf world, not the least of which being Evans herself.

In only her second start of the season, sophomore Mariana Macias grabbed a share of medalist honors at Coco Beach GC in Rio Grande, Puerto Rico, this after redshirt freshman Marisa Milligan won The Derby last November in her second-ever start. On a team already talented at the top of the lineup with former SEC player of the year Nicole Hage, Margaret Shirley and Abigale and Candace Schepperle, suddenly the Supremes have stolen the microphone from Diana Ross -- and given reason to believe maybe this just finally might be the year for Auburn to walk away with a national title.

Of course, it's too early to get too excited, Evans noted; the NCAA championship still is 12 weeks away. At the same time, the 13-year coach who has won five SEC titles and three SEC coach of the year honors wasn't afraid to throw out one superlative regarding her current squad, ranked fifth in the most recent Golf World coaches' poll.

"I've never had a team that's worked this hard," she contends. "What's that term for kids who like hanging around the gym and shooting baskets? Gym rats? I think I've got some golf rats. They'll be out practicing wedges an hour before practice [officially] starts. If they're not playing, they're practicing. I can't articulate it. It's just like … when I get to practice they're all there. They're ready to go."

Marcias and Milligan are no exceptions. The former hails from Madrid and was just 17 when she came over to the U.S. in the fall of 2005. Evans anticipated Marcias taking some time to get acclimated, but noticed upon her return to school in January a renewed energy. "I can't remember a time since we've been back that I drove by the course and didn't see Marianna there," Evans said. "She had worked hard during the break back home in Spain and I think she was chomping at the bit to finally prove herself."

Evans liked the spirit Milligan has shown since the day she said she wanted to come to Auburn as a walk-on after winning the Illinois Amateur title in 2005. "Whenever a player calls you and says 'I want to go to your school because I want to try to go to one of the best schools in the country, because I want to get better.' You've got to figure with that kind of mind-set there, she's going to get better.

"You knew Marissa had some play in her," Evans continued. "It was a matter of gaining some confidence and working a lot on her short game. just playing last year and being able to practice in a different setting. But you could just really see her come around when she returned this fall."

It wasn't like the Tigers were doing poorly before Marcias and Milligan emerged from anonymity. The team was in the hunt at the NCAA Fall Preview in September only to post a disappointing final-round score that dropped them to fourth, the same scenario that occurred at the Mercedes-Benz Collegiate in October, where Auburn finished third. At no point, however, did Evans panic.

"I don't think we were rusty," she said, "but I just felt like we could have been a little better. I thought we have room to improve and we can improve and we can get better than this."

The emergence of Marcias and Milligan means a little more competition back home to get a spot in the lineup and a little less pressure on the upperclassmen to carry the load during tournaments, both factors that only can bolster Auburn's confidence.

Her peers will tell you that Evans is among the best coaches in the country who have yet to win a national title, as the Tigers have finished sixth or better at the NCAAs four of the past seven seasons. Whether this group will be the one to get her the ultimate prize remains to be seen, but Evans is excited to let things play out.

"We've had some really polished players in this program," she said. "Right now we have two that have won that nobody has really heard of. I don't know what to make of it. All I know is this team has a way of kind of hanging around the leader board and that's a great trait to have.

"We're going to have a great time trying to see how good we can be, and I think this squad will leave it all out there. They'll leave 110 percent out there and that's what I'm most pleased about."

The Fab Five
The top five teams right now in the country:

Men's teams

1. Stanford

Freshman Joseph Bramlett becomes the third Cardinal to win a tournament after grabbing a share of medalist honors in Puerto Rico.

2. Alabama
Crimson Tide have some downtime after win at the John Hayt and their fourth-place showing at Puerto Rico in a five-day stretch.

3. Florida
A disappointing ninth-place finish in Puerto Rico is first time Gators haven't posted a top-five since February 2006.

4. Oklahoma State

Cowboys will have to guard against the distraction of questions surrounding Pablo Martin's future in Stillwater and whether he'll turn pro after this season.

5. Georgia

Bulldogs hang on for their first victory of the 2006-07 season after rough final round (294) to win in Puerto Rico by one shot.

Women's teams:

1. Arizona State

Claimed second-straight Arizona Wildcat Invitational title with an eight-shot victory over Duke, thanks to a second-round 277. (No, that's not a typo.)

2. Georgia

Bulldogs pull out T-2 finish in Puerto Rico, making it their third runner-up finish of the season to go along with their win at the NCAA Preview.

3. Duke

Individual win by Amanda Blumenherst in Tucson is her first of the season, but the Blue Devils lack consistency in the fourth and fifth spots.

4. Auburn

Tigers, winners in Puerto Rico last week, could be scary if Nicole Hage or Margaret Shirley start rolling.

5. Vanderbilt
Tie for 10th place in spring opener at Arizona Wildcat isn't surprising when you consider the Commodores never had full complement of five players competing in any round, with Liebelei Lawrence out for the first two rounds and Chris Brady sidelined for the final round.

Players of the Week
Frank Wrenn, SMU
A transfer from Clemson eligible for the Mustangs lineup for the first time this spring, the sophomore never had played in a college event until teeing it up as an individual at the John Burns Intercollegiate in Hawaii last week. He then went out and shot a 13-under 203 to win by one stroke. The son of former tour pro Robert Wrenn posted a 67-67-69 on Hawaii's Leiehua GC. Interestingly, Wrenn just missed out playing for the team in the tournament, losing in a playoff during the final qualifier. As SMU coach Jay Loar put it, "That was the last time Frank missed a shot." Wrenn became the first player in school history to win a tournament in his first-ever start.

Ashley Knoll, Texas A&M
The senior cruised to a six-shot victory at the Central District Invitational with a seven-under 209, second best in school history. She also helped the Aggies claim the team title at River Wilderness GC in Parrish, Fla. The win was a nice bounce-back for Knoll, who had posted her worst finish of the season the week before (T-24 at the Northrup Grumman Regional Challenge). "I just had a bad attitude [at the Regional Challenge] and had to readjust some things," Knoll said. "I hit the ball much better [in Florida]. It's a real confidence builder to come back like this from a bad tournament. I'm even happier that the team got the win. It was fun to see everyone celebrating."

Stat of the Week
5Number of players who shared medalist honors at the Lady Puerto Rico Classic. Coming in at one-over 217 were Georgia sophomore Alina Lee, TCU freshman Valentine Derry, Auburn sophomore Mariana Macias, Oklahoma State sophomore Pernilla Lindberg and Alabama senior Jenny Suh. No playoff was held due to players having to catch flights back to the mainland. Suh was given the trophy on site, thanks to the fact she shot the low final round of the group, posting a one-under 71.

What to Watch For
• The words were so shocking, perhaps because they were so honest. "This is maybe the most disappointing day I've ever had as a coach," said Georgia women's coach Todd McCorkle, an 14-year veteran of the profession. "It's my job to get the team prepared during the offseason. For whatever reason, that hasn't happened. I've got to find a way to make the team understand the importance of proper preparation."

The admission came after the Bulldogs shot a 14-over 302 in the opening 18 of the Lady Puerto Rico Classic last Friday, their worst round of the 2006-07 season by six shots. Suffice it to say, it wasn't the way McCorkle or his players on the top-ranked team in Golf World's latest college coaches' poll had hoped to kick off the spring schedule, sticking them in ninth place.

The feeling here is that the first round was an aberration. Consider that two days later, Georgia posted a two-under 286, 11 shots better than any other team that day, to scratch its way into a share of second, five shots behind eventual champion Auburn.

To McCorkle's ultimate benefit (and to the detriment of the rest of the top squads in the country) the first round also will provide the coach with a painful memory to call upon whenever his players appear to be losing focus this spring. Georgia is too good to let an opportunity like this get away. They are not so good, however, that they can show up at an event and expect tournament organizers to hand them the trophy. The Bulldogs won't wind up paying for their misfortune in Puerto Rico; the rest of women's college golf will.

• A nice extra perk will be given to the men's collegians named to the Ping first-team All-American squad this year. In announcing that Ohio State's Scarlet Course would be playing host to a new event on the Nationwide Tour in July, tour officials also revealed that several college players will be given exemptions into the event. Among them will the NCAA champion, the Jack Nicklaus college player of the year award winner and all players named first-team All-Americans. Golfers will not have to be amateurs to keep the exemption, meaning that anyone who turns pro at the end of the college season in June is still eligible. The hitch: The new Nationwide Children's Hospital Invitational is the same week as the U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship and the Players Amateur.

Tournament to Watch
Men: USC Collegiate Invitational
When: March 5-6
Where: North Ranch CC, Westlake Village, Calif.
Field: BYU, California, Coastal Carolina, Loyola Marymount, Oklahoma, Oregon, Oregon State, Pepperdine, Stanford, TCU, Tennessee, Texas Tech, UCLA, USC, Washington State
Defending champion: Pepperdine (nine-over 861); Anthony Kim, Oklahoma (nine-under 204)
Skinny: The event celebrates its 30th anniversary this season, with the host Trojans trying to win the team title for just the fourth time. Past individual winners have included Corey Pavin, who won the inaugural event in 1978 while at UCLA and took the title again in 1981; Billy Mayfair (Arizona State, 1987); Tiger Woods (Stanford, 1996); Jason Gore (Pepperdine, 1997); and Paul Casey (Arizona State, 1998).

Women: UCF Invitational
When: March 5-6
Where: Grand Cypress Resort, North & South course, Orlando
Field: Alabama, Arkansas, Central Florida, Duke, Florida, Georgia, LSU, New Mexico, Ohio State, Pepperdine, Purdue, SMU, Vanderbilt

Defending champion: New event
Skinny: Give credit to UCF women's coach Emilee Klein for getting such a strong field for a first-year tournament. Nine of the 13 teams rank in the latest Golf World top-25, including three of the top five. Tournament organizers (the event is being run by Octagon's Golf Division) have also added a pretty nice perk for the individual winner: a sponsor's exemption into the LPGA Tour's Sybase Classic, played the week between the NCAA Regionals and NCAA Championship.

For more reporting on college golf from Golf World senior writer Ryan Herrington, visit his Campus Insider blog.