__STILLWATER, Okla.—__By any measure—wins, stroke average, eye test, rock/paper/scissors, etc.—the best team during the 2010-11 season in men's college golf has been Oklahoma State. Add that with the fact that this week's NCAA Championship is being held on the team's home course, Karsten Creek GC, and there's no doubt who the favorite is to claim the national title.
The question, of course, is whether the Cowboys will fulfill their destiny and hold the trophy come Sunday.
With crowds that are likely to number in the thousands, there will be all sorts of local support behind OSU's bid for its 11th NCAA crown. At the same time, this just might increase the pressure that Mike McGraw's crew—Peter Uihlein,Morgan Hoffmann,Kevin Tway,Sean Einhaus and Talor Gooch—is likely to face this week. There is no other outcome that will please the folks in orange and black. And there is no other outcome that they anticipate happening.
Among those watching will be __Mike Holder__, coach for eight of OSU's 10 previous NCAA titles. The current Oklahoma State AD was a principal behind the change in the format that added a match-play portion to the championship. Part of his vision was to see the head-to-head clashes that have taken place the past two years, with memorable victories by Texas A&M and Augusta State. No doubt he also had an eye toward a week like this, where one of the contenders might actually be hosting the event and could indeed create a spectacle that frankly college golf has never seen.
The irony of all this is that the switch to match play quite likely has cost Holder's alma mater the last two titles. In 2009 and 2010, Oklahoma State held large leads after 54 holes of stroke-play qualifying. The assumption is that they would have maintained those advantages if one last 18 hole stroke play round were contested, as had been the case for decades prior to the switch. Instead, all the solid play did for the Cowboys was get them a No. 1 seed in the match-play bracket and led to eventual heartache when they lost to Georgia in the quarterfinals in 2009 and Augusta State in the championship match a year ago.
In some respects, then, this week's competition may well become a referendum on match play. Not to say the NCAA men's golf committee is looking to change things, but if for a third year the team that many consider the "best" team doesn't win the NCAA title, there might be a few more complaints about match play's inclusion in the championship
And they'll likely be coming from the locals walking around Karsten Creek this week.
OK, so if not Oklahoma State, then who can win this thing?
Suffice it to say, the squad that wins this week is going to be the one that practices the following mantra: "Patience is a virtue."
Veterans of the first NCAA Championship held at Karsten Creek eight years ago will remember the fact that despite having no issues with weather, the course set up (gnarly rough, slick greens) caused 5 1/2 hour rounds that forced a 54-hole cut to be implemented during the tournament in order to assure an on-time finish. The overall stroke average in 2003 was 77.9, with Clemson winning the title with the third-highest 72-hole score in tournament history (39 over), All-American D.J. Trahan shooting a team best final-round 74.
NCAA officials says that this year's set-up is a smidge more tame. The rough is still its brutal self—with spectators again being implored not to walk in it, least they actually make things easier. The key will be the greens. Given the windy conditions that tend to occur around here, if the they become too fast, pace-of-play could once again become an issue. NCAA officials will have to be careful that they don't let things get away from them.
Given the test that Karsten Creek is going to be, I think you're not likely to see any "surprise" teams make it match play, let alone claim the title. Here are the five that I see having the best chance of taking out OSU and being the upset winner this week.
Odds to knock off OSU:__ 25-1
Golf World/Nike Golf coaches' ranking: 5
Overall head-to-head record: 126-17-3 (.873)
Record vs. NCAA field: 30-10 (.750)
Starting five: Philip Choi, Soph., Anders Echavarria, Sr., Tyler McCumber, Soph., Tommy Mou, Soph., Bank Vongvanij, Sr.
__Birdie:__Whenever any one has underestimated the Gators, this group has proven they can play (see SECs and Southeast Regional for latest examples)
__ Bogey:__ In a strictly stroke-play championship, Buddy Alexander's group might have the best shot at outpacing OSU, but with match play in the mix, some of Florida's luster gets lost.
Odds to knock off OSU:__ 18-1
Golf World/Nike Golf coaches' ranking: 7
Overall head-to-head record: 106-27-3 (.790)
__Record vs. NCAA field:__32-21-2 (.600)
__Starting five:__Olle Bengtsson, Sr., Mitch Krywulycz, Sr., Carter Newman, Sr., Henrik Norlander, Sr., Patrick Reed, Jr.
Birdie: They've beaten Oklahoma State before, in the biggest of circumstances, when knocking off the Cowboys to take last year's NCAA title at the Honors Course.
Bogey: This isn't the Honors Course, and the Jaguars aren't Cinderellas any more.
Odds to knock off OSU:__ 15-1
Golf World/Nike Golf coaches' ranking: 3
Overall head-to-head record: 119-11 (.915)
__Record vs. NCAA field:__39-10 (.796)
Starting five: Bud Cauley, Jr., Hunter Hamrick, Jr., Trey Mullinax, Fr., Cory Whitsett, Fr., Bobby Wyatt, Fr.
__Birdie:__They have a go-to player in Cauley who could easily claim medalist honors, helping boost the team's overall confidence.
__Bogey:__While the Crimson Tide freshmen have been as impressive as any rookie class all year, their lack of experience at NCAAs might be a hinderance.
Odds to knock off OSU:__ 10-1
Golf World/Nike Golf coaches' ranking: 2
Overall head-to-head record: 131-14 (.903)
Record vs. NCAA field: 55-12 (.821)
Starting five: Patrick Cantlay, Fr., Pedro Figueiredo, Soph., Alex Kim, Jr., Gregor Main, Jr., Pontus Widegren, Soph.
__Birdie:__The Bruins have been models of consistency, suggesting that big events aren't going to scare these guys off. Plus coach Derek Freeman's Oklahoma ties should give the group good vibes.
__Bogey:__Can the bottom end of the line-up keep this group in the game come match play?
__Odds to knock off OSU: 8-1
Golf World/Nike Golf coaches' ranking: 4
__Overall head-to-head record:__99-24-1 (.802)
__Record vs. NCAA field:__31-22 (.585)
__ Starting five:__ J.T. Griffin, Sr., Paul Haley, Sr., Kyle Scott, Sr., Ricky Werekski, Fr., James White, Jr.
Birdie: Has post-season experience from winning ACC title past several years and reaching match play at year ago at NCAAs.
__Bogey:__With this being the swan song for three of the five starters, does the moment get too big?
Remember, the above is how I feel teams would do against Oklahoma State. All this said, here is how I see things shaking out.
__1. Oklahoma State
__Oklahoma State df. Illinois
Alabama df. Texas A&M
Georgia Tech df. Augusta State
UCLA df. Florida
__Oklahoma State df. UCLA
Georgia Tech df. Alabama
__Oklahoma State df. Georgia Tech
As for the individual title, again it would seem that Oklahoma State has three logical candidates that have to be considered contenders: Uihlein, Hoffmann and Tway. Their local knowledge of the course is something that will be hard to match. Of the three, my gut is telling me that this is going to be Kevin Tway's week. He'll get a measure of revenge after the disappointing missed putt during the finals last year that led to Augusta State's eventual team win. Tway has been playing solid of late and the senior has more than enough motivation to lift him in the medalist race.