PACIFIC PALISADES, CALIF.--Having just finished his second round, officially the individual clubhouse leader after 36 holes at the 115th NCAA Championship, Illinois'Thomas Pieters talked to reporters in early evening chill yesterday outside the clubhouse at Riviera CC.
He was asked the usual questions about his round, what went into shooting the 68 that left him at five under for two days, two strokes ahead of UCLA's Anton Arboleda and Florida's Tyler McCumber. He was also asked about his team's chances in the third round, the Fighting Illni among a group of five schools tied for eighth, the cut line for qualifying for the match-play bracket that will decide the team champion this weekend.
And then the sophomore from Belgium addressed the most vexing query he would face: With the individual championship on the line Thursday as well as the chance for the team to advance to match play, how do you approach the third and final round?
"If the team gets in the top eight tomorrow, I will be happy," Pieters said. "If I win or not, it doesn't matter."
It's an admirable answer, selfless and if not a tad bit surprising.
It's also one that Pieters shouldn't have to make.
In this week's issue of Golf World, I wrote a column in our Voices section about the need for the NCAA to explore and, hopefully implement, a separate individual championship (click here to read the story). My logic was because of the exact scenario that Pieters faces.
The current hybrid setup where golfers are playing for two different goals simultaneously creates a dilemma in how they approach the round. At the risk of being overly dramatic, the dilemma potentially jeopardizes the competition as golfers wind up playing at cross-purposes.
Pieters isn't alone in facing a difficult decision in how to approach today's final round. McCumber's mindset for the last 18 holes will also he skewed by the fact the Gators are among the five school sitting T-8 as well. What if McCumber is still two strokes back of Pieters with four holes left to play, but his team is hovering just above the cut line for match play? Does he decide to play aggressive in hopes of claiming medalist honors or make sure not to risk any big numbers for fear of harming the team's chances? I think I know what Florida coach Buddy Alexander would advise, individual title be damned.
The other part of my reasoning for wanting a separate individual championship is that the current setup doesn't give the individual winner the reward he deserves. At the last two NCAA Championships, eventual winners Illnois' Scott Langley and LSU's John Peterson finished up their final rounds in the morning, with little fanfare and lots of questions. Both had to wait until the afternoon wave finished before knowing if they'd done enough to secure their title. Langley actually learned he was the medalist while in his hotel room watching live scoring online, not quite the way he envisioned being crowned a national champion.
The same scenario could play out today. Stanford's Patrick Rodgers is four strokes back of Pieters, and because the Cardinal sit in 22nd place as a team, he will be teeing off at 9:20 a.m. local time, almost 3 1/2 hours before Pieters. Auburn's Blayne Barber is six strokes off the lead and he tees off at 9 a.m. Both Rodgers and Barber played on last year's U.S. Walker Cup team, their talents such that they could make an early morning run, get to the top of the leader board and then watch the hurry-up-and-wait storyline play out again.
Both also have all the incentive to play aggressively during the third round, their teams needing red numbers out of them if they're to have a chance of getting back into the mix for match play. Rodgers and Barber can play their rounds with a completely different mindset than others on the leader board, arguably giving them an advantage in the medalist race.
A separate individual competition would eliminate this issue. It creation, however, comes with a tremendous number of obstacles--financial costs, the burden of getting a host site, trying to figure out where on the schedule to fit it in. Playing it at the site of the team championship a few days before the team competition would seemingly address some of these, but not all of them.
Likely the biggest hurdle of all would be justifying the change to the NCAA in order to get it implemented. Sure college tennis has separate championships, but such precedent doesn't make the argument any easier to justify. To be fair a separate individual tournament in golf is a big ask.
But it's not an unreasonable one It's merits, at least in my mind, are worth having the discussion.