There were jitters, big ones. And why not? In the ultimate individual sport, a game that rewards outsized egos with a selfish streak, to don a uniform and represent a school whose colors you will wear and whose chants you will remember until your last breath; to bond with teammates with whom you will remain close until old age; to surrender and put aside your personal ambitions for your coach, your team, and your university, and to do all of this with television cameras rolling … well, that’ll always cause the hands to quiver and the heart to skip a beat.
“Yeah, we’ve got some nerves going out there,” Oklahoma head coach Ryan Hybl said early in the finals of the NCAA Championship as the Sooners, taking on the defending champion Oregon Ducks at Rich Harvest Farms outside Chicago, hit tentative putts and missed a couple of greens from inside 100 yards.
Those nerves never settled, but they weren’t unique to the Sooners. The golf was far from great, but that didn’t diminish the drama. Every emotion flashed on the faces of these young men, from the anguish of last season’s hero, Sulman Raza, as his putting stroke got shorter and quicker, to the tightened face of Sooner senior Max McGreevy as he embraced his mother after a 3-and-2 win over Edwin Yi, to the deep determination of Oregon freshman Norman Xiong as he ripped tee shots distances that would make Dustin Johnson blink.
This was the kind of amateur golf that every competitor will remember for the rest of his life.
“I miss it,” Golf Channel’s Billy Ray Brown said of college golf. “When I get here (to the NCAA Championships) every year I relive a lot of those memories from my time at the University of Houston.”
Lanny Wadkins, a major champion, a Ryder Cup stalwart and a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame who fought to be the lead Golf Channel analyst at the NCAAs, said, “If I had three years of my life to live over again, it would be my years at Wake Forest.”
“We’re brothers,” Oklahoma’s Brad Dalke said prior to taking on Raza in the final match. “We hang out all the time. (My teammates) mean so much to me. I want to win it for them,”
He did just that. Oklahoma jumped out to a 2-0 lead after Blaine Hale beat Xiong, 4 and 3, and McGreevey beat Yi. The Ducks led in the other two, but Dalke, who played conservatively off the tees all day, hitting only two drivers on a long golf course, made a long birdie putt on the 12th to go 1 up and then went 2 up and 3 up, respectively, with pars on 14 and 15.
Raza stayed alive with a great up-and-down for par from a hazard on 16. But the Oregon redshirt senior hit a nervy slice off the tee on 17 that found the high stuff. From there, he blasted out across the fairway and made bogey. Dalke missed the green left, chipped to 18 feet, and two-putted to halve the hole, win the match, 2 and 1, and capture the championship for his team.
“It means so much,” Dalke said immediately after. “To be able to make the last putt to win it, it’s crazy. I can’t put it into words.”
Someday the words will come, perhaps when the hair is gray and invincibility has vanished in the twilight. Maybe sooner. But one thing is certain: Dalke and his Oklahoma teammates, brothers in crimson and cream, have a lifetime to recall this moment, and a bond that will never be broken.