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Texas, Alabama in dream NCAA final

JVegas cropped.jpgPACIFIC PALISADES, CALIF.--No. 1 Texas vs. No. 2 Alabama.

Anybody else like the sound of that?

The NCAA men's golf committee got its dream match-up for Sunday's final of the NCAA Championship, with the two top-ranked teams in the Golf World/Nike Golf coaches' poll facing off for the national title at Riviera CC.

Both squads advanced after harrowing 3-2 semifinal victories Saturday, the Longhorns defeating Oregon, with Julio Vegas (right) making birdies on the 16th, 17th and 18th holes to clinch the deciding point, and the Crimson Tide hanging on to outlast California thanks to the clutch performance of senior Hunter Hamrick.

"We know we're top to bottom a really solid golf team, and so is Alabama," said Texas coach John Fields. "So we'll have our hands full tomorrow, and they will too. God bless them. I hope we have a fantastic match."

The Longhorns' depth was on display when their top two players--first-team All-Americans Jordan Spieth and Dylan Frittelli--fell behind in their matches against Oregon's Eugene Wong and Daniel Miernicki, themselves first-team All-Americans as well. So it was that Fields had to rely on Cody Gribble and Toni Hakula to grab two early points for the Longhorns.

Then he watched as Vegas, a redshirt junior from Venezuela, turned around his match with Oregon's Andrew Vijarro, birdies on the last three holes flipping around a match that he trailed 1 down when stepping off the 15th green.

After a birdie on the 16th green to square the match, Vegas reached the par-5 17th in two with a 3-woods from 287 yards. While missing his 40-foot eagle putt, he rolled in a five-foot birdie to take the lead heading to 18.

On the home hole, Vegas had a 9-iron from 160 yards land on the green 10 feet right of the cup. When Vijarro missed a birdie chip from the left of the green, Vegas had two putts to seal the victory but rolled in the birdie for good measure.

"I wanted to finish it off birdie, birdie, birdie," said Vegas, younger brother of former UT standout and PGA Tour pro Jhonattan Vegas. "That was really special for me."

Watching the Texas/Oregon tilt play out from the Riviera clubhouse was the Crimson Tide, having already had their own heart-stopping theatrics play out roughly an hour earlier.

Alabama coach Jay Seawell once again put Justin Thomas and Cory Whitsett out in the first two matches hoping to get a early lead as he did in the quarterfinals against Kent State. It only partially worked, however, against the Golden Bears as Whitsett took out Brandon Hagy, 3 and 1, but Thomas lost to Max Homa, 2 and 1.

Once again, though, redshirt junior Scott Strohmeyer, the No. 5 man in the Alabama lineup, came up big with a 1-up victory on Pace Johnson. When Cal's Michael Kim beat Bobby Wyatt, 2 and 1, it meant the Hamrick/Joel Stalter duel would be the deciding match.

Hamrick looked as if he would close out the match early, taking a 4-up lead after seven holes. But Stalter, a Frenchman with a fair amount of match-play experience in Europe, hung tough, winning the eight, 12th and 13th holes to close gap.

But Alabama's senior captain stopped the skid with a pars on 14th, 15th and 16th holes to halve each of them. On the 17th, both Hamrick and Stalter hit the green in regulation, Hamrick with a 18-foot birdie try and Stalter with a 12 footer. Hamrick missed his left, setting up the chance to Stalter to tie the match. But Stalter's putt horseshoed around the cup, never dropped to the bottom, the groan from the large Cal contingent heard all the way back to the 18th green.

On 18, both golfers missed the green with their approach shots. When Hamrick rolled his birdie try to kick in range, it forced Stalter to make his 25-foot try from the fringe. When the putt that rolled to the right of the hole as it was approaching the cup, Hamrick had the 1-up win and Alabama had its spot in the final.

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"Justin Thomas I consider him the best player in the country," Hamrick (above) said. "And he lost today. The one day when a guy like that don't play like they always do, to be able to pick up the slack is really rewarding."

And so it is that the NCAA golf committee has the scenario it had in mind when they added a match-play component to the national championship four years ago. Texas has seven wins on the season, with Spieth (70.68 scoring average), Frittelli (71.05) and Vegas (72.08) each winning individually. Alabama had five wins, all in the spring, with Thomas (70.39), Whitsett (71.44) and Wyatt (71.50) all posting sub-72 scoring averages.

During the regular season the two schools played in five common tournaments, the Longhorns having a 3-2 edge in head-to-head match ups.

Come Sunday, however, they'll have the head-to-head match-up that decides just which team can call itself the national champion.

PHOTOS BY J.D. CUBAN

*****

In addition to the D-I golf committee getting a No. 1 vs. No. 2 match for the NCAA Championship match, they also got the drama they were hoping for by allowing the coaches to pick the order of their lineups for the deciding match.

Specifically in the fourth match off on Sunday, Alabama freshman Justin Thomas will face Texas freshman Jordan Spieth. The duo are considered the two leading candidates for the Jack Nicklaus and Fred Haskins national player of the year awards.

As Alabama coach Jay Seawell left the dais when the lineups were announced, he turned to the onlooking media and asked, somewhat rhetorically: "Did you get what you wanted?"

The answer is yes.

NCAA CHAMPIONSHIP MATCH
Sunday
All times PDT

Alabama vs. Texas
10 am--Bobby Wyatt vs. Toni Hakula
10:09--Cory Whitsett vs. Dylan Frittelli
10:18--Scott Strohmeyer vs. Cody Gribble
10:27--Justin Thomas vs. Jordan Spieth
10:36--Hunter Hamrick vs. Julio Vegas
 
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