__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 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.
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.