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Love it or hate it, match play has let college golf get its wish

By Ryan Herrington

I read this tweet from early Thursday morning and smiled.


Nearly a decade ago, men’s college golf coaches were up in arms about the fact that they would turn on ESPN in late May and see results of the NCAA women’s softball tournament on SportsCenter but there was never even the threat of a mention about college golf. The observation had a chauvinistic undertone but also an overriding point. What might it take for college golf to get even a nibble of attention from mainstream media? How could college golf become part of the SportsCenter Top 10 someday?

The answer: match play. It seemed overly simplistic then and still sort of does today. But the idea of creating head-to-head contests pitting two schools against each other rather than have a free-for-all tournament with too many protagonists for the layman to sift through had its merits. Even non-sports fans know what an NCAA bracket is. If you brought one to college golf, maybe you could make a connection.

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It was in the mid-2000s when Mike Holder began having conversations with anyone who would listen about the idea of implementing match play into the NCAA Championship. The legendary Oklahoma State men’s golf coach had just become the school’s athletic director, and he was convinced that the switch would create a domino effect that could ultimately rise the tide of the entire sport. There are many in the college golf community who don’t think much of Holder, whose aggressive, stern methods have rubbed them the wrong way. But you have to credit him for having a vision.

Rest assured not everyone was in favor of the switch to match play when it came to be in 2009, and there are still many coaches and traditionalists not thrilled that a format seldom used during the college regular season is the one that decides the sport’s national champion. In the last year, the debate continued to rage as the NCAA Women’s D-I golf committee had to muscle several reluctant women’s coaches to follow suit, with match play coming to their championship next spring.

Whether you like the format or not, it’s hard not to concede that it has had the desired effect. The head-to-head nature of match play was an easier sell to TV executives when the NCAA peddled televising the championship to Golf Channel. Similarly, it’s an easier sell to producers at ESPN, who don’t have the time or desire to explain the play-5-count-4 nuances of stroke play. Alabama beats Oklahoma State for the NCAA title. It’s a sound bite, but it also fits nicely on the TV scroll.

The irony of this whole thing is that while Holder was the biggest champion for the move to match play, he and his school might actually have been most adversely effected by the change. Twice now since match play came to be, Oklahoma State has lost in the championship round, yesterday’s 4-1 defeat at Prairie Dunes against Alabama coming four years after OSU lost to Augusta State at The Honors Course. And twice in the last six years the Cowboys likely would have won an NCAA title had the old stroke-play format still been in effect, OSU having the lead in the 54-hole qualifier.

Regardless, last week was the celebration of college golf that so many people had longed for. Golf Channel offered over-the-top coverage of the championship for three straight days. (Seriously, a four-hour “pre-game” show before the championship match? Even Holder couldn’t have dreamed of that. Only thing missing from the coverage was a version of "One Shining Moment" at the end.) Next year they’ll show the women’s championship as well as the men’s. The profile of the overall sport was raised exponentially.

And, damned if college golf wasn’t mentioned on SportsCenter’s top 10.

 
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