Before match play began Tuesday at the men’s NCAA Championships in Fayetteville, Ark., college golf observers knew the favorite.
The defending champion Oklahoma State Cowboys stayed perched at No. 1 in all the rankings for most of the season. And Cowboy junior Viktor Hovland, who recently won the Ben Hogan Award as the nation’s top college player, and sophomore Matthew Wolff were Nos. 1 and 2 in the individual collegiate rankings, respectively.
So, when the Cowboys shot 16-under-par 1,136 in the championships’ stroke-play portion and claimed the No. 1 seed in match play by 31 shots – as impressive as that was – most fans nodded or shrugged. Everyone thought this was over. The Cowboys should run the table.
All five Oklahoma State players finished in the top 30 on the individual leaderboard, and Wolff won the NCAA individual title with a 10-under 278 score, five strokes better than Georgia Southern’s Steven Fisk.
Consider this, too: Wolff started the NCAAs with a 4-over 40 on his first nine at Blessings Golf Club last week and then went on to make 19 birdies and five bogeys over his final 63 holes to win the title. Plus, it was the largest margin of victory in 15 years for the individual title. He beat the field average by 26 strokes. Twenty-six strokes!
“Coming here this week, we have talked about it all year, winning the team championship,” Wolff said. “The individual championship is really nice, and obviously this is the biggest tournament I’ve won thus far in my career, but it is all about the team this week. I want to do all I can to help my team and get OSU another (title).”
But since the NCAAs changed to a match-play finals format in 2009, the No. 1 seed from stroke play has never won the championship. Call it the No. 1 curse.
Oklahoma State dispatched SMU in short order, 4-1, on Tuesday morning. Hovland defeated Ben Wong, 5 and 4; Wolff beat Noah Goodwin, 2 and 1; Hayden Wood topped Ollie Osborne, 2 and 1; and Austin Eckroat bested Jackson Markham, 2 and 1. It looked like the rout was on.
This is why the NCAA changed the format of its championships to match play. The drama, the storylines, the upsets: It’s probably the greatest thing ever to happen to college golf.
Tuesday afternoon, Oklahoma State’s semifinal showdown with Texas provided some of the most compelling television of the week. Hovland and Eckroat posted victories for the Cowboys, but Wolff lost, 4 and 3, to Texas freshman Cole Hammer, who was named the Phil Mickelson Award recipient as the nation’s top freshman golfer, and Texas’ Pierceson Coody took down Wood, 5 and 4.
It came down to the final match between Oklahoma State senior Zach Bauchou and Texas senior Steven Chervony. Elevating the drama further, that match went to extra holes.
Throughout the match, the lead never went more than 1-up. Chervony evened the match at 18 to force extra holes. But when Bauchou missed a short par putt on the 19th, a putt that seemed to vanish before horseshoeing out of the hole, the match ended. Texas advanced to the championship finals. Oklahoma State, to the shock of most fans, went home.
“We had a fantastic year,” Cowboys coach Alan Bratton said. “What good theater that was right there. Hate to see it end that way, you don’t see lip-outs like that very often, but there was no one on our team I’d want to end that spot other than Zach. That’s why he was in that spot. He has been a star for us.
“We had a fantastic week. It’s not hard to find positives at all. That is not the way we wanted to week to end, but you’ve got to give Texas credit. They got three points and that is what it takes to win.”
This is why the NCAA changed the format of its golf championships to match play. The drama, the storylines, the upsets: It’s probably the greatest thing ever to happen to college golf. Without the change, Golf Channel likely would not devote as much coverage as it does to the NCAAs. And without Golf Channel, fans would be deprived of the show we saw this week in Arkansas.
How big a deal have the NCAA Championships become? On Wednesday morning, when the Stanford Cardinal won the NCAA title with a 3-2 victory over Texas, Stanford alum Tiger Woods celebrated in the middle of the fairway at Muirfield Village during the Memorial Tournament pro-am.
If the favorite doesn’t win, so be it. There is much more drama and anticipation with match play than ever before. It’s the perfect way to conclude the college golf season.
Matthew Wolff of Oklahoma State outclassed the field to win the NCAA individual title, but the top-ranked Cowboys were knocked out of the team match-play competition by Texas in the semifinals. Photo: Jack Dempsey, NCAA Photos
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