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NCAA postscript: What to make of nationals

By Ryan Herrington

RETURNING FROM MILTON, GA.—
On the eve of the NCAA Championship, I pontificated that while California was the dominant team in men's college golf in 2012-13, they weren't the only team capable of winning the national championship. The Alabama Crimson Tide proved me correct (a rarity, I know) as Jay Seawell's squad never had a down day during its visit to the greater Atlanta metropolitan area, performing not just the best but the most consistent of any team competing at Capital City Club's Crabapple Course.

I concluded that column by saying: "This is Cal's tournament to lose. But that doesn't mean another school isn't ready to make it their championship to win." And indeed, that's what Bobby Wyatt, Justin Thomas, Cory Whitsett, Scott Strohmeyer and Trey Mullinax did. As I noted in my story about the championship in this week's Golf World, this fivesome debunked the cliche "Losing hurts worse more than winning feels good" as they got redemption from their bitter defeat in the finals of the 2012 NCAA Championship.

No sooner, however, had California senior Max Homa painfully missed the par putt on the 20th hole of his semifinal match with Illinois' Thomas Pieters, did the grumbling begin. Is it fair that the head-and-shoulders No. 1 team not just for this season but for any season in three decades—if not any season ever—wasn't even going to be playing in the final?

My simple answer is yes. That's the way match-play works. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. Almost all the time the matches are going to be close and they're going to come down to executing under the gun.

Truth be told, and I think maybe Golden Bear coach Steve Desimone will admit this in a private moment, Cal's starting five wasn't playing its best last week. They were vulnerable. Now it speaks to just how impressive a roster they have in Berkeley that on a week when it was looking weak, Cal still finished ahead of all 29 other schools after 54 holes of stroke play (six strokes better than second-place Georgia Tech and nine ahead of Alabama). But there were stretches of play where the Golden Bears appeared beatable even before they actually got beat by the Fighting Illini on Saturday.

So now what?
Do we call Alabama's title tainted? I don't think anybody should—or will—considering what a impressive team they are and the great 2012-13 season the Crimson Tide had (eight wins used to be a pretty stellar year, remember?)

Do we say enough with the match play, that it's an experiment that has too random an outcome and should be returned to the confines of the Ryder/Walker/Palmer Cups? I'm on the record as liking the excitement that match play brings to the championship, the emotions it creates and the drama that results, so naturally I don't agree with this. More importantly, I think the powers that be at Golf Channel don't agree either. And considering the cable network has signed on to televise the men's championship in 2014 and the men and women in 2015, the folks there have a say in this.

Match play is much easier to televise than college golf's standard play-five, count-four stroke-play model. And a large part of the point of switching to match play in the first place was to get the championship on TV. Well guess what? It happened. So to pull the plug on match play now wouldn't seem to be realistic. In fact my guess is that by 2015, the women's championship will also include match play, if for no other reason than the simple fact that it would be tough to televise the two national championships in back-to-back weeks but use totally different formats.   

Coach Desimone's biggest lament last week was that his squad's entire season—and its place in college golf history—could be decided on a single day's play given the match-play format and the vagaries inherent with it. With all due respect, isn't that what happens in pretty much every other college sport? Notre Dame's perfect football season was shuttered in the BCS title game. A single day's play changed the Irish's memorable year to a hollow one. Conversely, Louisville's impressive run in NCAA men's hoops could have been spoiled if it played poorly in the title game against Michigan, but the Cardinals followed through and outplayed the Wolverines to cap their year. Good on them.

Even in the old 72-hole stroke-play format, the final round was a single day that had a lot riding on it. As Desimone might remember when he led his then Cinderella team to a title at The Homestead in 2004, UCLA had a five-stroke lead entering the final 18. On that single day, the Bruins stumbled and the Bears took control, shooting the best score of any school by seven strokes to win the big trophy by six. Sometimes, a single day can be magical.

Am I disappointed about anything that went on at the Crabapple Course? Yes. First, I applaud the powers that be in college golf for acknowledging that the sport has a slow-play problem, but I wish the biggest event of the year wasn't the venue in which officials tried to solve it. I feel for Texas A&M's J.T. Higgins and his players for putting on an impressive charge the final day of stroke play to get inside the top eight and (seemingly) advance to match play, only to have Tyler Dunlap get a one-stroke penalty for slow play that dropped the Aggies into a playoff that they ultimately lost for one of the remaining spots in the bracket. I did not witness any of their last round, so I can't say for certain if the officials got it right or wrong, but from reading and talking to folks about it, I am not sure the punishment fit the crime.

Second, and Illinois fans please don't read anything extra into this, I wish we had seen California and Alabama competing on Sunday for the NCAA title simply because these were the two teams that had the best seasons in 2012-13. It would have been fun to watch how they would have matched up with each other, how Wyatt vs. Michael Weaver might have shaken out of Thomas vs. Homa. Given the way the Crimson Tide played all week, my guess is they still would have walked off with the hardware.

****

If you've gotten this far, hang with me a little longer as I go through a few other random NCAA thoughts before school gets out for summer.

* At the end of the 54 holes of stroke play, Alabama and Texas tied for third with matching seven-under 833 scores. A tiebreaker (lowest combined drop scores from the three rounds) gave the Crimson Tide the No. 3 seed and the Longhorns the No. 4 seed, which might not be the biggest deal except that it spared Alabama from a potential match-up with No. 1 seed California in the semifinals.

It also revealed one of the flaws in the current system in that the potential from some top teams to face off earlier rather than later in the match-play bracket is there when you go strictly off how things shook out in stroke-play qualifying. A suggestion I heard from a few, including Golf Channel's Steve Berkowski, was to take the eight teams that advance to match play and seed them based off their ranking during the regular season rather than from stroke-play qualifying. I advance this idea here not because I am sold on it but because I want to hear some debate about it. I feel like there should be a reward for finishing first in stroke-play, but is the No. 1 seed really a reward? Maybe, maybe not. Figuring out an equitable way to keep heavyweights like Cal and Alabama from facing off too early, however, seems a worthwhile endeavor to explore.

* I gave Georgia Tech coach Bruce Heppler an open mike to rant about his frustration with the proposal that's being reviewed by the NCAA Championship/Sports Management Cabinet that would add a fourth round of stroke play to determine an individual champion but would force the quarterfinals and semifinals of match play to be contested on the same day in order to keep the overall championship a six-day affair (seven with the practice round). I did it, again, because I thought a little debate on the subject was important. Frankly, I agree with him that playing those two match-play rounds on the same day would be really difficult and potentially unfair in the sense that trying to contain your emotions after winning a round and regroup to play another one shortly after is pretty tough stuff. With the focus of the tournament being on crowning a team winner, this actually hurts the team competition.

Where I disagree, however, from Heppler is his thought that we don't need to extend the individual tournament to 72 holes. Heppler stated that 54 holes is "legitimate" in crowning a medalist, noting that the winners the last five years have all been high-caliber players. Yes, but I think the profile of the individual event will be greatly enhanced by adding back 18 more holes and by having the final round only effect the outcome of the individual title. There will be no conflicting goals—playing conservatively/aggressively to help the team get a match-play berth or playing conservatively/aggressively to win the indy crown—for players to try to balance. In turn, the quality of play and the prestige of winning the individual title will only improve.

The solution I like best is to add an extra day to the overall competition. Yes, it makes a long week even longer (and more costly), but most of these guys are out of school at this point so the only thing being delayed is their summer amateur schedules. The reason this likely won't happen, however, is … wait for it … TV. Golf Channel wants to televise that fourth round of stroke play on Monday, so it won't conflict with Sunday PGA Tour coverage, and the match play final round on Wednesday, so it won't conflict with Thursday PGA Tour coverage. Adding the extra day I prefer would mean one of these things is compromised. And ultimately, I don't think Golf Channel really will want to do that. (And you wanted the NCAA Championship on TV … be careful what you wished for!!)

* Talking to California's Max Homa after his loss to Illinois' Thomas Pieters in the semifinals of the NCAA Championship might have been the toughest interview I've had to do since I started on the college beat in 1998. Homa was on such a high from winning the individual title two days earlier. The pain from missing that putt on the 20th hole was evident from the moment it lipped out. I walked with the Homa/Pieters match for most of the round and seen the two play a fun, drama filled contest. My job called for me to try to talk to Homa about what happened, as painful as it might be. After all, the best team in college golf in at least 25 years had just been knocked out of the NCAA Championship. That's a story, even if it's a painful one.

To Homa's credit, he regrouped, spoke to the media and showed he's just as impressive a person as he is a golfer. The four-minute Q&A was awkward and difficult and emotional. I asked a question of him about whether he felt his game was on that day, which was unfortunately not really what I was trying to get after. His swing was great but it was his putting that was inconsistent, and if I had to do it over again I'd have rephrased my question specifically about the putting. Homa, with pride, reminded me that he had hit 19 or 20 greens during the round, implying that the game was just fine. Even in the face of a misguided question, Homa handled himself well. That's going to only bode well for him when he eventually plays the game for pay.

The most poignant thing Homa said was when he was asked if this was an instance where he would trade his NCAA individual title, as well as the Pac-12 individual title he won in April. "I'd throw them in the grinder," Homa responded. "Anyone here can take them. I just wanted the team one." If you think the "team thing" in college golf is all a facade, read that quote again and you'll realize it's not.

The best post-script for Homa: on Monday he earned a spot in the U.S. Open at his Sectional Qualifier in California, earning a berth in extra holes to boot. Consider me impressed again by this young man.
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