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College golf's TV issues are a good problem to have

By Ryan Herrington

LAS VEGAS
—During her induction speech into the Women's Golf Coaches Association Hall of Fame Dec. 10, Washington's Mary Lou Mulflur managed, intentionally or otherwise, to put things into perspective about the current state of college golf.

Amid lively discussions over the last few months, some of which spilled over into this week's WGCA annual convention, about the specifics of the NCAA Women's Division I Championship when match play is incorporated to determine the team champion in 2015, Mulflur used her three decades of experience overseeing the Huskies women's program to put the debate into context.

"We're arguing about TV," Mulflur said. "Think about that for a minute. Think about how far we've come that we're arguing about TV."

Indeed, it says much about the growth of the college golf that the conversations during the WGCA gathering at Planet Hollywood centered primarily around changes precipitated by one of the world's most prominent cable sports networks wanting to devote more airtime to the sport. It's a far cry from the days not that long ago when schools were begging just to offer a full complement of scholarships and adequate practice facilities.

College golf has the honor.   

In a similar fashion, the discussions among the men's coaches at the Golf Coaches Association of America convention that ran concurrently centered mostly around granular specifics—is the addition of a fourth round of stroke play to crown an NCAA individual champion worth requiring the quarterfinals and semifinals of team match play be contested on the same day—rather than broader systemic issues.  

All of this is good and healthy and speaks to an exciting direction the sport is taking. Preceding an inspired keynote address by Dr. Condoleezza Rice about the role of coaches as teachers and educators, Golf Channel president Mike McCarley opened up the proceedings in Sin City with a presentation that addressed the fact that college golf is an under-covered niche and highlighted how that the network could provide opportunities to change that.  

McCarley emphasized that the Golf Channel's commitment is more than just televising nationals in May but to help promote the sport more broadly through Golf Central, Morning Drive and some of its other programs.

"It's not just about the three days of TV around the championship," McCarley said. "It's about more and move coverage of college golf all parts of the year on all platforms."

There is no college-centric show in the works (a la the old "College Central" from the early 2000) and no specifics on how frequently college golf might be covered overall. The plan, however, is for the sport to become part of the content across the Golf Channel's numerous outlets, as well as see expanded coverage on its website, suggests they're genuinely putting some skin in the game.

Suffice it to say, there is buy-in from the coaching community. Any frustration expressed by the women's coaches last summer upon unexpectedly learning of the intention to add match play to the D-I championship was tempered with the appreciation for the potential benefits this change would bring. Instead, the women's coaches were genuinely trying to figure out how exactly to integrate the stroke and match-play formats together in the fairest way.

In the short term, the NCAA Women's Division I golf committee must decide on specifics for the 2015 championship before the NCAA Championship/Sports Management Cabinet meets in February. Two options are being explored. One is to follow the plan the men's D-I championship is using starting next spring: four days of stroke play, the first three determining the eight teams that advance to match play with the last crowning a medalist, followed by two days of match play with two rounds the first day and an 18-hole final on the second.

The other plan would incorporate the format that the men's championship used the past three seasons: 54 holes of stroke-play qualifying with an individual champion crowned and eight teams advancing to match play, followed by three days to weed through the bracket and determine a team winner.

It's important to note that the Golf Channel prefers (greatly) the first option, so much so a producer was on hand during a break-out session in large part attempting to selling the coaches on why they should go with this model. The idea of crowning two champions over three days is the piece that is most appealing, and will be tested next May when Golf Channel televises the D-I men's championship from Prairie Dunes.

Several women's coaches, though, question whether another round of stroke play might make a long week too long. Might some players on teams that would be playing in match play who also qualified to play the fourth round of the individual event (the top 30 and ties) but don't have a realistic chance at winning medalist honors decide not to play so as to rest for match play? And would match play teams that don't have only one golfer playing the fourth stroke-play round have an advantage over those who had multiple golfers competing?

Carol Reep, NCAA associate director for championships and alliances, said a decision will be made by early January but wasn't sure what it would be. My educated guess is that you'll see the "4-2 model" with 72 holes of stroke play be adopted with the men's championship in May serving as a litmus test to whether it serves all masters.

With match play now being used by the men and women in the postseason, the increased usage of the format in regular-season competition created the biggest discussion point at the GCAA meetings. Should the NCAA golf committee specify a minimum number of stroke-play days of competition so that the ranking system used to determine births into the NCAA regionals can best compare the results of programs from around the country who might otherwise play very different types of schedules? It's a notion members of the golf committee said they'd take under consideration down the road.

As the saying goes, the devil is in the details, so working out all the specifics is no small matter. But to return to Mulflur's point, if the biggest issue facing college golf involves trying to figure out a way to best work with a new TV partner, the sport seems to be fairly healthy. 
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