MILTON, GA.—The heartbreak was evident the moment California senior Max Homa's seven-foot par putt lipped out on the second extra hole, giving Illinois' Thomas Pieters a victory in the deciding match of their schools' NCAA semifinal clash. Homa hunched over, hands covering his face, as a hushed moan came from the Cal faithful watching on, the dream season for the Golden Bears having just come to a sudden, painful end.
Winning three of the five matches against California, Illinois moved on to Sunday's final round at Capital City Club's Crabapple Course where they will face the 2012 NCAA runner-up Alabama, a 3-0-2 winner over Georgia Tech in the other semifinal match. In the process, the Fighting Illini became just the fourth team to beat the Bears in a magical 2012-13 campaign.
Unfortunately for California, four turned out to be one too many.
Eleven victories in 14 tournaments, a 203-4-1 head-to-head record and five golfers who finished the season with 70.9 averages or lower allows these boys from Berkeley to go down, statistically speaking, as having had the best single season of any college team in history.
But the realization that it won't be capped with a national title was difficult to comprehend for coach Steve Desimone.
"It's hard to believe it's over," Desimone said. "I don't know the next time a season like this is going to happen. Maybe it's going to happen next year. Maybe it's not going to happen for another 50 years. But I'll tell you there's nothing that happened today that diminishes that. My humble opinion, this is the best college golf team that ever played.
"It will be a very rough afternoon and a tough few days, but what they've accomplished is going to live a long time," Desimone added. "Whether we won or lost here, the season we've had is unique in the history of college golf, and we're going to be able to celebrate that for a long time."
Interestingly, many of the squads that can make the argument for being considered the best college golf teams in history actually fell short of winning an NCAA crown. While Wake Forest won NCAA titles in 1974 and 1975, its 1976 team was considered by many as the best of the era but finished fourth at nationals. In 1981-82, UCLA won 13 of 20 tournaments but was sixth at nationals. And in 1985-86, Oklahoma State won 10 team titles but came in second at nationals.
The frustration, though, of having the season end in this way was obvious and chilling.
Homa, two days after what he considered the biggest victory of his career in claiming NCAA medalist honors, to go with his Pac-12 individual title, said he'd trade them both to be playing with his teammates for the NCAA crown on Sunday.
"I'd throw them in the grinder," Homa said. "Anyone here can take them. I just wanted that team one."
Even Illinois coach Mike Small felt empathy for the Bears, despite taking the program he's overseen for 13 years to the brink of claiming its first NCAA title.
"It's mixed feelings as a coach," Small said. "As a competitor, I'm fired up. We've stood toe-to-toe with the best team I've seen in a long, long time. But as a human being, to see those kids and you see how much they played all year and how well they played every week. to come down to this, it's tough to see that. Now I know what NCAA basketball coaches feel like."
Yes the Illini's win is an upset—only Pieters, the reigning Big Ten individual champion, ranked in the top 50 while all five Cal players ranked in the top 25—but this wasn't a matter of David vs. Goliath. Illinois had won five team titles during the 2012-13 season, including a fifth-straight Big Ten championship. The squad continued to build momentum by winning its NCAA Regional in Fayetteville, Ark., two weeks ago with a lineup of two freshmen, two sophomores and a junior.
Freshman Charlie Danielson claimed a 3-and-2 victory over Cal's Joel Stalter while sophomore Brian Campbell knocked off Michael Kim, a favorite to be named the winner of the Jack Nicklaus national player of the year award tomorrow.
Yet Cal countered with wins from Brandon Hagy (4 and 3 over Alex Burge) and Michael Weaver (1 up over Thomas Detry), leaving the overall match to be settled by Homa-Pieters, the 2013 NCAA individual champion and his predecessor in 2012.
Homa jumped out to a 1-up lead with a birdie on the fifth hole, then stretched it to 3-up after nine, winning Nos. 8 and 9 with par. Yet a Homa three-putt on the 10th hole gave Pieters a break, and he followed it up with birdies on the 11th and 12th to square the match.
"I didn't get down on myself," Pieters (right) said. "I just told myself to keep hitting solid shots on the back nine."
Homa won the par-3 13th with a birdie, but three-putted again on the 14th to fall back to all square.
Still tied on the par-4 18th hole, Homa and Pieters were both in the fairway. Homa hit the green in regulation but left himself a 30-foot birdie putt. He raced the try seven feet by, but when Pieters missed a 10-foot birdie try that would have won the match, Homa came back to hole his par try and send things to extra holes.
Returning to the first tee, the two halved the 19th hole with pars, Homa nearly holing a birdie chip. On the 20th hole, Pieters missed the fairway off the tee but hit his approach to eight feet below the hole. Homa, having found the fairway, had a wedge to the green, but adrenaline kicked in and he hit it to the back tier, leaving him 50-plus feet for birdie. (It was the 19th green he had hit on the day.)
Homa's birdie attempt rolled seven feet by, but he still had a chance to extend the match when Pieters missed his birdie attempt. Homa's par try, however, hit the lip.
And then the heartbreak was real.
Photos by J.D. Cuban
SATURDAY SEMIFINAL RESULTS
Match 5 - #5 Illinois d. #1 California, 3-2
Michael Weaver (Cal) d.. Thomas Detry, 1-up
Charlie Danielson (Illinois) d. Joel Stalter (Cal), 3 and 2
Thomas Pieters (Illinois) d. Max Homa (Cal), 1-up (20 holes)
Brian Campbell (Illinois) d. Michael Kim (Cal), 2 and 1
Brandon Hagy (Cal) d. Alex Burge (Illinois), 4 and 3
Match 6 - #3 Alabama d. #2 Georgia Tech, 3-0-2
Anders Albertson (GT) vs. Bobby Wyatt (Alabama), all square
Trey Mullinax (Alabama) d. Shun Yat Hak (GT), 4 and 3
Bo Andrews (GT) vs. Scott Strohmeyer (Alabama), all square
Justin Thomas (Alabama) d. Seth Reeves (GT), 3 and 1
Cory Whitsett (Alabama) d. Ollie Schniederjans (GT), 3 and 2
SUNDAY CHAMPIONSHIP MATCH
#3 Alabama vs. #5 Illinois
8:00 a.m. - Bobby Wyatt vs. Thomas Detry
8:10 a.m. - Trey Mullinax vs. Charlie Danielson
8:20 a.m. - Justin Thomas vs. Thomas Pieters
8:30 a.m. - Scott Strohmeyer vs. Brian Campbell
8:40 a.m. - Cory Whitsett vs. Alex Burge