Final impressions from The Honors Course
__HOME FROM OOLTEWAH, TENN.—__It's been almost 72 hours since Augusta State claimed the NCAA men's title, and I'm still struck by the scene I witnessed at The Honors Course. I'm not talking about the actual play on the course during the championship round, which at times was a bit ragged Sunday (a combination of nerves and exhaustion after six days of tense competition). I'm talking about the raw emotions expressed by all those in attendance after the outcome was decided.
Consider the celebration by the Augusta State supporters who made the nearly four-hour drive from the city that hosts some invitational tournament on a former nursery every April. It wasn't that Jaguar fans were obnoxious in victory. Far from it. Their joy was actually fairly understated. Kind of in a, "Wow, did that really just happen?" way.
But that's the thing; the happiness was so genuine. There was Augusta State coach Josh Gregory's wife, Ashley, six months pregnant running around sobbing while trying to find another person to hug. There was Augusta State athletic director Clint Byrant, his right large hand swallowing that of every person coming up to congratulate him. There was Augusta State president Dr. William A. Bloodworth, with a grin that only comes from true happiness.
And then there was Gregory himself, who was doing his best Jim Valvano impersonation, trying to find the next person whose arms he could jump into. It was hard to find a bigger bundle of nerves last week than the 35-year-old. They're going to have to surgically remove the Blackberry from his hands, he was checking it so much to find out where his team stood. If nothing else, they'll need to re-print all the letters/numbers on the keys, because he certainly wore them out.
Maybe now he won't be asked where Augusta State is anymore. On Saturday, Gregory related a story about how earlier in the week he had a spectator come up to him and ask if the team was from Augusta, MAINE.
Conversely, I was similarly struck by the sadness you could see in the Oklahoma State players/supporters. Maybe the Cowboys have won 10 NCAA titles, but none of the five players competing this past week had ever won before. Make no mistake, Morgan Hoffmann,Peter Uihlein,Kevin Tway,Trent Whitekiller and Sean Einhaus wanted to win just as badly as their opponents, maybe even more so considering how high expectations can get in Stillwater regarding the golf program.
Sadly, Tway missed a par putt on the 19th hole in his match with Mitch Krywulycz that ultimately became the clinching point for Augusta State. More than 20 minutes later, the blank expression on his face remained, when he wasn't covering it with his cap. The scene told you needed to know about how disappointed he was about the turn of events.
There are a group of people who root against Oklahoma State golf, just like they root against the New York Yankees or the Dallas Cowboys. They believe these teams have a sense of entitlement. All I can say is that's far, far from the truth about this group of guys. I believed that before their loss on Sunday and I believe it even more after seeing their pain in defeat.
Indulge me then to offer a couple more random thoughts as I put a mental close to the 2009-10 season.
1) The match-play format, used for the second time last week at nationals, continues to polarize college golf fans like nothing else I've ever seen in this sport.
I was standing next to the parent of player on a team that advanced to match play last week. We were behind the first tee, his son about to start one of his matches. He turned to me and said, "I've never been more nervous watching him play a college golf event." Wow, I thought to myself, that seems like a pretty good endorsement for match play if this guy feels that way.
No sooner had the first sentence come out of his mouth, however, when he continued: "But win or lose, I hate this format."
In my personal straw poll, a thoroughly unscientific one at that, I sensed that more people this year were hating it than a year ago, which is surprising since the golf that it created was incredibly exciting, as it was a year ago when the format debuted. The Washington-Oregon face off in the quarterfinals was great entertainment, with two first-team All-Americans (UO's Eugene Wong and UW's Nick Taylor) battling to keep their team's NCAA title dreams alive. Same with the Augusta State-Georgia Tech tilt, where emotions ran high as the in-state foes took things down to the final holes.
"I didn't know how I felt about this format," said Gregory, after the Jaguars defeated the Yellow Jackets, "but that's the most fun, most nervous, most exciting, most paranoid I've ever been on the golf course."
What I think I've hearing from people I talk to about the new format is they agree it has created exactly what the NCAA golf committee was hoping for: highly energized moments of competition that college golf just doesn't see in a 72-hole stroke-play contest. What I'm also hearing is that the two biggest hang-ups with the new format—that match play isn't played during the regular season and that it doesn't identify the best team—remain MAJOR issues.
Personally, I don't agree with the second criticism. Whenever that argument is offered, there's this general assumption that stroke play inherently identifies the top team. Sorry, but I have been to at least three NCAA championships that were 72-hole stroke-play events where the winner was hardly considered the best team entering the week and still really wasn't considered the best team afterward.
This year, the eight teams that advanced to match play were all ranked in the top 16 in the Golf World/Nike Golf coaches' poll entering the tournament, including four of the top five schools. Augusta State was not a Cinderella by any stretch—I'll stop with my Butler vs. Duke stuff, I promise—but a quality program that obviously had a fair amount of depth. I understand the fluke factor that can arise in match play (the vagaries that the format creates) but you've got five guys playing, not just one, in a team setting. If the vagaries of match play allow for three players that don't deserve it to actually win their matches, and not just in the quarterfinals, but in the semifinals and the finals, I don't question the format. I question the logic that had us doubting the team should win in the first place.
The better argument, and the one that almost every other week of the year could actually get me to want to change things back to strict stroke play, is that match play simply isn't played during the regular season. The disconnect with having a format that's for the most part foreign to college golf actually deciding the national champion isn't a small one. That one week of the year, however, when the case isn't as easy to make is literally championship week, when all the excitement and drama of match play carries the day and makes you forget everything else.
__*2) We need 72 holes of stroke play to crown an individual champion.
*__No disrespect to Illinois' Scott Langley, but the individual tournament seemed to really fly under the radar this week. There are a lot of reasons for this, not the least of which being that the third round got completed in near darkness so there was no proper way at the end of the day to celebrate the individual winner. Worse though was the fact the medalist race felt like it ended too early, that one more 18-hole round was really needed at a championship of this caliber to give the accomplishment of winning the gravitas it deserves.
I know adding one more round to the event only makes a long week longer, but for the integrity of the individual championship (in leau of creating a separate individual tournament) it's needed in my mind. The good news is that from talking with NCAA men's golf committee chair Darin Spease, I think if there was enough sentiment to add one more round, this could be done in the near future (you're going to have to wait longer to get rid of match play).
3) Trent Whitekiller is a class act (Part 1)
The Oklahoma State senior was in a difficult spot when he drew Augusta State's Taylor Floyd in the championship round. Floyd was battling flu-like symptoms entering their Sunday match and was questionable to even play. The match was supposed to be the second one off, but was dropped to last in the order to give Floyd time to finish an IV treatment. Throughout the round, Floyd was dragging, often running to bathrooms, slowing down the pace of play not as a get in the head of my opponent way but in a am I going to make it to the next hole way. Never once did Whitekiller show an outward sign that this was getting to him. He respected Floyd for answering the bell even when he was not 100 percent.
*__4) Trent Whitekiller is a class act (Part 2)
__*I can't describe how gutted the Oklahoma State team looked after losing Sunday. When they went to pick up their NCAA runner-up trophies, the forced smiles were painful to see. Mike McGraw, among the most classy people I know in this sport, looked ashen, as he and his team walked away back into The Honors Course clubhouse. About 15 minutes later, however, Whitekiller came back out and specifically went up to each Augusta State player, shook his hand and congratulated him on their win.
*__5) Don't forget about the other two teams that reached the semifinals.
__*Sadly, there wasn't enough space in my Golf World game story to talk a lot about Florida State and Oregon, the schools that got to the Final Four but missed out on the championship round. It's a pity because both would have been similarly compelling stories to Augusta State had they done on to win the NCAA title. The energy Casey Martin has infused in Eugene, Ore., is very real and he has a roster that's also very young: no seniors, two juniors and three sophomores. While I'm not sure I'm sold on Eugene Wong being the college player of the year in 2010, he's an undeniable talent that will only get better.
Likewise, the work Trey Jones has put in with the Seminoles has been impressive. No team was more relaxed playing in the championship than Florida State. It was funny to see the 14-foot rented van that served as the team's locker-room on wheels outside Chattanooga.
I asked Jones what the deal was, how the thing came about. Jones said that in order for the NCAA to reimburse a school that flies to the championship, the school has to be more than 400 miles away from the championship site. Unfortunately, Florida State was 395 miles away. Knowing they were going to have to drive, he decided he had to upgrade the ride for the occasion.
"The absolute backbone of this whole thing was when I was at Georgia State," Jones said. "Our basketball coach was Lefty Driesell. I try to take something from every legendary coach, and one of the things Lefty said was 'If you ask a lot out of them, give them a lot back.' "
It's a sign of a coach very in tune with his team. Don't be surprised to see bigger, better things from Florida State down the road.