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Final thoughts from Men's NCAAs

Unknown.jpegBEVERLY HILLS, CALIF.--After filing my story about Texas' dramatic victory over Alabama at the NCAA Championship for this week's issue of Golf World on Monday morning, I followed up with my customary phone call about an hour later to see if anybody had any questions. Thankfully there were none--if you think standing over a four-foot putt is tense, try waiting for the response when you ask if the story you've labored on pretty much all night has met with your boss' approval. I was surprised, though, at the response I got from one of the editors.

"Sounds like you got a pretty good tournament there," said the voice on the other end of the line. "Loved the reaction from Dylan Frittelli."

Granted I like to think my story captured the drama of the final day pretty well, but I got the sense that my editor had actually seen highlights of the round somewhere/somehow.

In the next few days, I've heard similar comments from other folks who knew I had been at Riviera, all of them asking me if the final day's play was exciting as they had heard. OK, I talk to a lot of people who are really into golf, many of them paid to be into it, so my sample size sometimes gets skewed. But I even had my own father, a casual fan who lives in Connecticut, said he'd heard all about the big Longhorns winning.

All I could think to myself was: How?

I bring this up because after a couple days to mull this over I've come to the conclusion that some how, some way this year's championship attracted more attention than any my recent memory.
Maybe it was because it involved Texas and Alabama, name-brand programs that people gravitate to even if they don't know a think about golf. Or because it was Riviera, a classic course that even casual fans have heard of. Or that Golf Channel got some very nice shots from Sunday's play that aired on Golf Central and other GC programs. (Similarly, the Texas sports information department and the Longhorn Network were all over Sunday's championship match with solid coverage.)

Whatever the explanation, for the first time in a while I had reason to believe that college golf might be making in-roads. That maybe some time in the future, we'll see the coverage of the action go beyond the current webcast.

Our little sport is never going to be as popular as football or basketball or baseball. But it's a great place to get a glimpse of the future of the game. Hopefully people are starting to appreciate this.  

A few other observations before calling it a wrap on the 2011-12 season.

* There was a different feeling about the NCAA Championship this year that was directly connected to being at Riviera CC. The famed course's reputation and history created a different atmosphere even from the usual high-stakes vibe that the championship gives off. You could tell by the way the teams and coaches walked around the place, soaking in the scene at the beautiful clubhouse and appreciating how cool it was to be playing where the pros play.

Several coaches reiterated the point Jay Seawell made Sunday after his squad had just missed claiming the title. "I hope the NCAA continues to put places like Riviera on our schedule," he said. "It makes the NCAA Championship more special. I've been to a lot of them. been to a lot of special places, the Hazeltines, the Invernesses, but I think that's what made this week … that's what I'll remember the most

Indeed the NCAA golf committee has done a nice job in recent years of getting quality venues interested in hosting this event. They need to continue to do this as it only helps boost the importance of the event in the minds of players and fans.


* Not to beat a dead horse, but I think match play is working very well in terms of creating compelling action at the national championship. After cutting down to eight schools and filling in the brackets, only one match throughout weekend didn't offer at least a little drama (the "5-0" victory by Texas over Washington in the quarterfinals). I saw some Twitter debate about whether the women's championship should consider match play, with some folks arguing that NCAAs a few weeks ago at Vanderbilt Legends Club was plenty compelling without it. I agree it was extremely exciting. However there is also the potential in a stroke-play event to have the drama sucked out of the tournament early, spectators then left with a pretty ho-hum final round to endure.

What the current match-play format does is maximize the number of days that have excitement and drama. Starting with the final-round of stroke play where teams are jockeying to get into the top eight, then three full days of matches, you have at a minimum of four days where all the golf tends to matter in terms of the outcome of the tournament. When the debate really begins about whether the women should adopt match play down the road, that would be the best argument for it, in my mind.


* Lost in drama of Texas' win on Sunday was the impressive play by Alabama's Bobby Wyatt to steal a point for the Crimson Tide in his match with UT's Toni Hakula and nearly let them claim the NCAA title. Wyatt had struggled during the week and was trailing Hakula through much of the final match. But a 10-foot eagle putt on the 17th hole and then a chip in for birdie on the 18th to go from 1 down with two holes to play to a 1-up winner was the stuff of legend if Alabama can pull out the title. Seriously, an eagle-birdie finish on Riviera's 17th and 18th to win your match that look like it was lost? Hopefully this one won't be forgotten too quickly.


* Would Sunday's outcome have been different if Bud Cauley played his senior year for Alabama rather than turning pro and earning a PGA Tour card? Debate among yourselves.


* California had the best season in school history from a statistical standpoint (six wins including its first Pac-12 and first Regional titles) and did it without any seniors in their starting lineup, plus with arguably their best player (Michael Weaver) having redshirted this past season. (Max Homa and Brandon Nagy are no slouches, though.) I have a feeling Bears coach Steve Desimone would like the 2012-13 season to start tomorrow.


* Congrats to Casey Martin for making it into the U.S. Open on Monday via Sectional Qualifying after his Oregon team lost in the semifinals of the NCAA Championship Saturday. I got the impression from talking with him that he really didn't give himself much of a shot of earning a spot since he hadn't played much in the last few weeks as the Ducks were getting ready for nationals. I also think he felt that one of his departing seniors, Daniel Miernicki, was playing well enough to grab one of the spots, making it really a long shot to grab the other (Miernicki would lose in a playoff to Nick Sherwood for the other U.S. Open berth).

What's interesting to think about is whether Martin would have had the same success Monday had his team actually won their semifinal at Riviera and competed Sunday in the NCAA final. It would have forced a late Sunday night flight to Oregon and made the turn-around time pretty quick to get ready to compete. Plus, his emotions would have been a little more tested by having either won or lost the NCAA title the previous day.

Of course we'll never know how it might have played out but my guess is that Martin would have traded his spot in the field at Olympic next week if it meant the Ducks were the ones holding the NCAA championship trophy Sunday.


* Glad to see Alabama's Cory Whitsett put his bad break on the final hole in the deciding match with Frittelli behind him so quickly. Whitsett's near-whiff of his third shot on the 18th with the entire championship on the line could have been a ego-deflating killer. Instead Whitsett, who candidly and graciously talked to the press even after that sad finish, played U.S. Open sectional qualifying in Houston and nearly earned himself a spot in the field at Olympic Club, losing in a playoff.


Rodeo Drive.jpg* Proof for my wife that indeed I did check out Rodeo Drive. But in Beverly Hills, my meals were at Chipotle. You can take the simple man to the fancy city but you can't get him to become fancy overnight.

OK, last one out turn off the lights. Enjoy your summer vacation.

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July 28, 2014

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