Notre Dame, Ind. -- If Becca Huffer’s round-of-32 match against Martina Gavier of Argentina is a prelude to the dramatics in South Bend these days, then a certain football team occupying an adjacent plot of land has a higher standard to meet this fall than initially anticipated.
Huffer, a Notre Dame junior, appearing relaxed and totally unfazed while playing to the cheers of an ever-swelling home crowd, led for much of a crisp Thursday morning encounter against the second-seeded Gavier before eventually falling in 20 holes.
Never mind that the match featured lead changes right down to the very last moments. Huffer, playing inspired and solid golf, exchanged giggles with her teammate Anne Brophie nearly the whole way. One wonders if Huffer, a Denver, Colo., resident, was even trying to bring a laugh to the rather intense-looking Leprechaun that doubles as the headcover on her driver.
She nearly put a smile on the crowd’s face at the match’s conclusion. Huffer, steady in a survive-and-advance match-play environment, won the first two holes and parred the first 11 of the match to build a 2-up advantage through 13 holes until Gavier charged back. The feisty senior from Kent State responded by holing a tricky right-breaking 20-footer at No. 14, squared the match one hole later by knocking in a 25-footer and took her first lead at No. 16 after Huffer’s approach flew the green.
Despite trailing for the first time going to the par-5 17th, Huffer showed the calm of an air traffic controller, escaping tangly rough off the tee before returning the match to square after her opponent missed a 7-footer for par. For good measure, Huffer calmly rolled in her birdie chance, springing her way to the hole, as energetic as a performer going on stage for the first time at Carnegie Hall.
After blistering drives at Nos. 18 and the first extra hole, Huffer mis-hit iron shots and both players manufactured halves before Gavier closed the escape hatch at the 20th hole, the par-4 second. There, she knocked in a 16-footer from the fringe after Huffer’s birdie chance missed by an eyelash. A match that produced a loser in name only ended in a worthy manner.
“I had a few missed shots here and there. I was hitting my driver a lot better today and had a lot of great up and downs,” said Huffer, who estimated she missed only three fairways the entire match. “She made some good birdies – there’s not much you can do about that. She just kept firing at the [flagsticks]. She’s tough.”
Huffer, the 2008 Colorado high school female athlete of the year, was heavily recruited nationally out of high school and is the highest-profile junior golfer to attend Notre Dame. This week's WAPL was just a continuation of an already-impressive résumé and added confidence to her game. Steadier than ever with her game, as a sophomore, Huffer finished out of the top-20 only once during the 2009-10 college campaign. This year, improved results have come from staying away from the roller-coaster ride of big numbers that can accompany the pressure of putting pencil to paper on the scorecard.
“It’s certainly something that we talk about and work on. She knows that if she wants to get to the next level, she has to get past the ‘blips’ – because you’re going to have them,” says Susan Holt, the women’s golf coach at Notre Dame. “You have to know you are a good enough player that you can make it up and get it back. She’s doing a good job with it.”
And Huffer’s supposed advantage on the Warren Golf Course wasn’t as pronounced as one might initially think.
“I think she played awesome,” Holt says. The layout will be an NCAA regional site next year. “With our schedule, we don’t play this golf course that much. In the fall, when the course is the nicest, we’re travelling. In the spring, because of the weather, sometimes we don’t get out until April. I think she’s enjoyed coming out here to play this course for four rounds and she got some good practice on it.”
Huffer’s first appearance in match play at the WAPL, or in any USGA championship for that matter, accompanied by an opening round win, has its own rewards.
“Both matches – both rounds – were really good matches; holes were won with birdies,” said Huffer, an industrial design major who owns a 3.3-plus grade-point average while balancing the demands of golf and travel. “It’s the way I like to play match play and it was fun being out here – with the home crowd. It was fun. I really enjoyed it a lot.”
And there are a lot of gold-plated positives to take from going 20 holes. Wimbledon anyone?
“Oh, crazy,” Huffer laughed at the suggestion. American John Isner survived a 70-68 fifth-set marathon in a first-round match at the All England Club that carried over three days. “Are they done yet?”
After today, onlookers appreciate that Huffer’s climb is just starting.
Andrew Blair is the communications director for the Virginia State Golf Association. He is contributing articles at this week's WAPL for the USGA.