This article, written by Kevin Casey, was originally published by Golfweek.com.
A UCLA player is atop the leaderboard at the ANNIKA Intercollegiate Presented by 3M. That’s no surprise, considering the Bruins finished last year as the nation’s No. 1-ranked team.
But it’s not ANNIKA Award winner Bronte Law leading the way. Lilia Vu is pacing UCLA.
The sophomore fired a 5-under 67 Monday, starting off slow with eight pars and a birdie and then filling up the card with four more birdies on the backside. The round boosted her to 11 under overall, which puts her in a tie for the lead with Georgia’s Bailey Tardy (Arizona State’s Linnea Strom is a distant third at 8 under).
With Vu’s help, the Bruins posted a 16-under 272 to jump from third (five shots back) to a two-shot lead over Arkansas at 25 under with one round to go at Reunion Resort’s Watson Course. That 16-under day tied the school record for lowest single round in relation to par, and oh by the way, USC won this event by 23 shots last fall. Is matching the rivals a year later on UCLA’s mind?
“No, I haven’t even thought about it,” UCLA’s women’s head coach Carrie Forsyth said, with a laugh.
So what’s the change this year? Well it helps that the Trojans aren’t quite in the same form as they were this time last year (USC sits tied for fourth at 12 under).
But improved course conditions have also been a factor.
“For us, it’s more we didn’t play well here last year,” Forsyth said. “The course is in really good shape this year, better than last year. That’s part of it, the girls are pleased with the greens, they’re rolling it well. Making putts is where we really struggled here last year (on fast, bumpy greens).”
The Bruins have four players under par this week (Vu, T-1 at 11 under; Bethany Wu, T-7 at 6 under; Law, T-16 at 4 under; Mariel Galdiano, T-26 at 2 under). But that’s another change, Vu setting the tone.
Somewhat of a surprise – Vu hasn’t won a college event yet – but not totally. Law may have been the best player in the country last year, but Vu wasn’t far behind. As a freshman, she never finished outside the top 25 and put together seven top-12 finishes in 11 starts. It led to an end-of-season No. 3 Golfweek ranking.
But even at those heights, she’s returned this fall a significantly different player.
It’s tough to find faults for a player who was one of the best in the country as a freshman. But actually, Vu competed in her rookie season as a bit of a work in progress.
Forsyth felt Vu’s game entering college could be really wild.
“(On her swing), she had a tendency before to get a little bit long and behind her,” Forsyth said. “She would come too much from the inside, which caused her misses to be bigger.”
The coaches advised her shortly after she arrived last year on better athletic posture – Vu had a tendency to be too tall and in too much of a sit-down position at address – and keeping her elbow in front. These shifts could help lead Vu to a shorter, more compact swing where she could be more accurate without necessarily losing distance.
Funny enough, when the UCLA coaches mentioned these tweaks, they weren’t the first ones to point this out.
“(Lilia) said, ‘Oh my dad says the same thing,’ ” Forsyth said. “And we’re like, ‘Why don’t you listen?’ ”
It was a fair question. Vu, who started playing the game at age 7, was brought up on golf by her father, Douglas, and he has served as her trustworthy swing coach for roughly the last four years.
So when dad was backed up by her college coaches, Vu made the switch immediately, right? Well…
“It took some time, because I hate changes,” Vu said.
While she did work on it during her freshman year, Vu didn’t really commit to finding this shortened swing until summer rolled around. She still proved plenty formidable throughout the year, especially in the spring, even without the tweaks.
But the advice from different coaches did kick in, with some inadvertent help from Vu’s teammates.
“Just seeing Bronte, her swing’s pretty short,” Vu said. “And looking at everyone else, my swing was kind of long.”
So Vu committed to change this summer. The verdict in the fall? Mission accomplished.
Vu was already known for phenomenal ballstriking – “some of the best I’ve ever seen in college,” says Forsyth – but she’s returned this fall with that shorter, more compact swing that has Forsyth happy. As another pleasure, Forsyth no longer sees the freshman year swing issues, especially not the tall, sit-down position.
The swing doesn’t just look good, either, it’s performing on all cylinders. Vu, without losing distance, has seen the size of her misses shrink since the change, and this week she has been all over the flag. Vu’s racked up 12 birdies in 36 holes, leaving several more chances out there. She actually expressed a bit of disappointment in Monday’s bogey-free 67.
“I think there were more birdies out there,” Vu said.
But hey, it’s still 11 under in her first two rounds of the season, and that score has the juggernaut Bruins in pole position for a monumental season-opening victory.
Frankly, the very person who echoed Vu’s father’s sentiments on change wants no more.
“There’s nothing I would tell her about her golf swing right now. And there’s nothing I would tell her about her setup right now,” Forsyth said. “It’s looking really good, I wouldn’t change a thing about it.”