Irina Gabasa might be the smallest player in the field this week at Long Cove Club.
The Vanderbilt sophomore might also be overlooked among her teammates, including fellow sophomore and 2012 SEC all-freshman selection Kendall Martindale and returning all-American Lauren Stratton.
But since returning from a trip to her native Philippines over the holiday break, Commodores coach Greg Allen has noticed a difference in Gabasa's game. She strikes the ball better, he said. Her shots sound different off the clubface.
And on Saturday, Gabasa shot 3-under-par 68 to help her team take the lead after the second round of the Darius Rucker Intercollegiate. Vanderbilt is 10 over, three shots ahead of Louisiana State and seven shots clear of defending champion Alabama entering today's final round, which begins with a 9:30 a.m. shotgun start.
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"She came back and is just more confident," Allen said. "I think more relaxed."
Gabasa made birdie on three of her final five holes to post her lowest collegiate round. She is 1 over for the tournament after 36 holes, five shots behind LSU's Madelene Sagstrom, who matched the women's competitive course record Saturday with a 67.
Martindale is among a group tied for fourth, at 2 over, after an even-par 71 on Saturday. She, like several others around the lead, credited Long Cove's smooth, fast greens for helping scoring.
"The faster the greens, the easier it is to putt. Less can go wrong," said Martindale, who also credited a technical switch, moving the ball up in her stance and hands more forward at address.
The Commodores, who hosted the 2012 NCAA Championship at Vanderbilt Legends Club, are trying to earn their first win of the season after starting the spring with a second-place finish in Tampa, Fla., at the Central District Invitational.
But they have some of the top programs in the country chasing and not much of a cushion.
Consecutive birdies on Nos. 8 and 9 helped push Sagstrom, whose 67 matched defending medalist Stephanie Meadow's number from 2012. Sagstrom added birdies at the par-3 13th and par-4 16th.
She leads Arizona State's Noemi Jimenez by three shots entering the final round. Sagstrom said she hasn't slept on a lead in college golf, but that she would try to repeat Saturday's routine.
She praised the course for rewarding good shots and for its true greens.
"You know if you've hit a good putt or not," she said. "And you know if you get a good read in."
Long Cove superintendent Ashley Davis watched as the final groups finished 18 and wondered if warmer weather in the afternoon might have slowed his greens, which were rolling more than 11 on a Stimpmeter to start the tournament. The greens -- bermudagrass overseeded with cool-season poa trivialis -- have been mowed twice and rolled before each round, Davis said.
The end product worked for Gabasa, who estimated two of her birdie putts Saturday at more than 35 feet. She closed with a 5-iron to 3 feet for a birdie on No. 18.
Vanderbilt shot 2 under 282 on Saturday, its four contributing scores picking up for the senior Stratton, who struggled to a 78
The Commodores, who had to replace Marina Alex, the 2012 SEC player of the year, are trying a light approach to the spring season. The team played Harbour Town on Wednesday, despite impossible wind on the finishing holes, and has soaked up the views this week from its beach house in Palmetto Dunes.
"Our focus has been just doing our best and having fun along the way," Gabasa said.
Darius Rucker Intercollegiate
Long Cove Club, Hilton Head Island, par-71
*Full results and live scoring available at golfstatresults.com
1. Vanderbilt 296-282--578, 2. LSU 295-286--581, 3. Alabama 297-288--585, 4. Arkansas 293-298--591, T5. North Carolina 295-299--594, T5. Arizona State 297-297--594, 7. Tennessee 297, 301--598, 8. UCF 298-302-- 600, 9. Virginia 301-303--604, 10. Georgia 308-299--607, 11. TCU 311-305--616, T12. South Carolina 314-305--619, T12. Furman 313-306--619, 14. Wake Forest 304-320--624, 15. Auburn 315-316--631
Individual Top 10
1. Madelene Sagstrom, LSU 71-67--138
2. Noemi Jimenez, Arizona State 72-69--141
3. Irina Gabasa, Vanderbilt 75-68--143
T4. Casey Grice, North Carolina 71-73--144
T4. Kendall Martindale, Vanderbilt 73-71--144
T4. Dani Ordonez, Arizona State 73-71--144
T7. Emma Lavy, Arkansas 68-77--145
T7. Gabriela Lopez, Arkansas 71-74--145
T7. Erica Popson, Tennessee 74-71--145
T7. Emma Talley, Alabama 75-70--145