22nd May in Golfnews by
STILLWATER, Okla. – Bianca Pagdanganan figured she would go for the two-putt on Karsten Creek Golf Club’s par-5 18th green.
She didn’t know where her Arizona team stood, and two putts from mid-range would mean a closing birdie. But then her killer instinct arose.
“For some reason I just had a lot of confidence in me standing over that putt,” Pagdanganan said. “I saw the line and I knew I was going to make the putt.”
Her slippery 25-footer started left, slowed late, took a huge curl right and dropped into the center of the cup for a momentous eagle. As Pagdanganan prepared to putt, assistant coach Derek Radley had whispered into the ear of freshman Yu-Sang Hou, “She’s making this.”
And then all the hysteria broke loose. As it turned out, Pagdanganan (who finished second individually at 6 under) needed to make that putt to take the Wildcats back from the dead and give them a chance to finish in the top eight after 72 holes of stroke play and reach match play at the NCAA Women’s Championship.
Once she drained it, her team standing greenside went wild. They proceeded to start an MVB (Most Valuable Bianca) chant in her honor.
“For Bianca to come through and make that eagle … I’ve never seen anything like it,” Radley said.
The saving eagle put Arizona in at 33 over on a day it had appeared to collapse (the team shot a 17-over 305, a field worst by six shots Monday) and moved the Wildcats into a playoff with Baylor for the eighth and final spot for match play. After two extra sessions, Arizona won with darkness closing in and was moving on to Tuesday’s quarterfinal (where the team will take on top-seeded UCLA).
To call this a wild final day of stroke play at NCAAs was an understatement. It was already hectic enough before Pagdanganan’s late jolt.
Arizona, ranked 12th, was in the picture, but the battle of the eighth spot appeared to be between No. 26 Baylor and second-ranked Arkansas earlier in the afternoon.
It came down to their final hole (the par-5 ninth). The Bears led the Razorbacks by one for the eighth spot as Arkansas’ Dylan Kim looked over a 20-foot hooking birdie putt to potentially save her team’s season.
The scene was dripping with irony: Kim trying to catch Baylor, the team she had transferred from prior to this season. Did Jay Goble, Baylor’s head coach, catch it?
“Of course I did,” he said, with a smile. “Come on.”
Kim proceeded to hit a putt Goble thought was right in the center, but it lost speed and dove under the hole at the last second. The par meant Gurleen Kaur, who enrolled early as a freshman this spring at Baylor, just needed to two-putt a downhill 20-footer to seemingly solidify the Bears in the eighth spot.
Goble has taken to calling Kaur “Rambo” for her aggressive golfing nature, especially on putts.
“You’ve never seen anybody hit a 15-foot putt so hard,” Goble said.”She hits it 6 feet by and then she makes the 6-footer.”
Kaur didn’t know the situation Monday but simply looked at Goble when he was helping her with the read and said, “I got this.” Her putt gently rolled by the hole and she tapped in for a clutch 4-under 68 to push her to a tie for seventh at 1 under and seemingly the Bears into match play for the third time in four years.
But then the twist. Pagdanganan’s eagle sent a shockwave, but Baylor – a team that wasn’t sure it could make NCAA regionals earlier this spring and was 21st after the first round at nationals – still had a playoff to stay alive.
The format was a five-count-four deal, with each of the teams’ five starters paired with an opponent on a different hole going off on a shotgun. Each group would play its hole and scores would be tallied. It was a disjointed extra-holes session that left coaches and players uninformed.
Gigi Stoll, an Arizona junior, had heard most of the info after finishing her first playoff hole, but was waiting to hear what the last scores were when they abruptly were shuttled off.
“They didn’t tell us what scores each person made,” Stoll said. “They just said, ‘We’re continuing.’ “
The teams had tied and were on to a second session.
Pagdanganan stuffed an approach shot for birdie in the second go-round and Baylor mistakes allowed the Wildcats to cruise past this time. Still, the metholodgy left a sour taste.
Goble’s take on the format?
“It’s interesting,” he said, with a hint of displeasure.
He’s not making excuses, though. As Goble noted, Arizona earned it. And his team didn’t back down all week.
“They have nothing to be ashamed of,” Goble said. “They gave it their all.”
The Wildcats entered the day in third but began falling apart quickly. By the middle of the round, a heaping of bogeys and doubles had dropped Arizona to ninth.
As the final holes approached, the Wildcats were still trailing for the eighth spot, and their hopes appeared dashed.
But head coach Laura Ianello kept texting Radley, “Have faith. Have faith.” She had walked with Pagdanganan since the eighth hole and gave her junior a direct message late.
“For my last two holes, I can only remember (Laura) telling me, ‘You have to play the best golf of your life,’ ” Pagdanganan said.
That eagle did the trick, especially considering she got it after having to hit a 6-iron from 180 yards out of a divot.
The fact Pagdanganan is moving the Wildcats on is poetic. The Philippines native transferred from Gonzaga this season and instantly left a mark on her new coaches.
Ianello remembers their first meeting with great clarity.
“You can tell from the moment you meet her how genuine of a good person she is,” Ianello said. “I remember texting Coach D the first time I had breakfast with her after she committed to us, and I said, ‘She is a breath of fresh air.’ “
Pagdanganan has helped prove that by being the light of the team, the one who always makes the others laugh. She has a variety of methods: Coming up with puns, laughing at her own jokes, laughing at seemingly nothing.
She constantly sings the Wildcats’ unofficial fight song – “Bear Down, Arizona” – or at least the first four lines she’s memorized. Stoll joked Pagdanganan brings that one out at least five times a day.
Stoll has been Pagdanganan’s roommate on several road trips this season and noted that the junior tends to sing and dance at will in hotel rooms.
“She really likes having personal concerts by herself, where she’s the star of the show,” Stoll said with a laugh.
But the smiley Pagdanganan has serious game. Her runner-up in Stillwater was her seventh top-16 finish this season. Her team calls her “The Unicorn” for her unbelievable talent.
Radley says he “about fell over” the first time he saw her hit a golf ball.
“Her father, Sam, would always text me, ‘I can’t wait to hear that sound off Bianca’s driver. It sounds like an explosion coming off the face,’” Radley said. “And I’m like, ‘Man, it does.’ It’s incredible.”
Ianello noted in the fall that Pagdanganan could be the longest player in college golf. That’s when she was hitting it about five yards past her teammates in practice rounds. Radley said she’s now pasting it 20-30 yards past them.
With their “unicorn” applying a saving putt, Arizona is still alive. It’s a day that will never be forgotten.
“It was a rollercoaster,” Radley said. “Absolutely incredible.”
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