For the third straight year I leave the NCAA men's championship emboldened by the excitement of the final day of competition, the mano-a-mano tussle this time between Augusta State and Georgia. It wasn't the match-up that the folks in Stillwater had hoped for—not enough orange—nor frankly was it exactly how the NCAA folks wanted it to turn out. Photos of 5,000-plus spectators walking Karsten Creek Sunday following OSU were something that the men's committee would have showed off relentlessly in hopes of helping them find a partner to help pay to have the event televised.
Still, the drama between the Jaguars, trying to become the first team since 1985 to repeat as NCAA champions, and the Bulldogs, trying to redeem a season that didn't go quite as planned with three senior All-Americans in the lineup, was real and compelling to watch. Say what you will about match play as a method to determine the "best" team. It creates a much more exciting finish to the championship.
Photo by J.D. Cuban
I was asked by a colleague when I returned from Oklahoma if I thought that the match-play format might be in danger, given that the best team throughout the 2010-11 season did not win the NCAA title (no disrespect to ASU fans intended). My answer was no, judging from conversations with committee folks who seem very satisfied with the current set-up.
I think the past week actually bolsters the pro-match play stance. Oklahoma State indeed was the dominant team this past year, but not this past week. The Cowboys struggled somewhat in stroke play and didn't ever seem like they were comfortable in the setting, which is pretty remarkable since they were playing at home. Did the pressure get to them? That's too simple a way to look at it, and I don't really believe that to be the case. Golf is a hard game. Some weeks you've got it, some weeks you don't.
That might actually make what Augusta State pulled off all the more impressive. For the second straight June, at the absolutely most important time of the year, the Jaguars had it. And this time it happened with everyone wearing Augusta blue knowing that this was the last call. Coach Josh Gregory had told Patrick Reed,Henrik Norlander,Carter Newman,Mitch Krywulycz and Olle Bengtsson before the start of the event that he was going to be leaving ASU to take the job at his alma mater, SMU. Everyone was aware that every day after Wednesday might be the last one they would all be together as a team.
"We just kept playing to get one more tee time," Gregory told me on Sunday.
It's kind of a cliche, but there's also something really poignant in that phrase. These guys are a tight knit group. They were the only ones that really believed they could beat Oklahoma State a year ago at The Honors Course and honestly, they were the only ones who really believed they could repeat this year.
As I wrote in my story this week's Golf World magazine about the NCAA Championship, the victory last Sunday puts the 2010 win in a new perspective. It certainly validates the win.
A few more random thoughts to close out the 2010-11 season.
*** Patrick Reed made his pro debut today at the FedEx St. Jude Classic. From the time I first reported that he was accepting the sponsor's exemption last Friday, I've gotten people asking me about whether it was a short-sighted decision because he would be forgoing a chance to play in September's Walker Cup as well as a chance to qualify this week for the U.S. Open (his amateur ranking got him into sectionals provided he remained an amateur). I disagree on both fronts, more vehemently about the U.S. Open. What happens if he turns down the exemption, stays amateur and goes to the Open qualifier and doesn't earn a spot? He's wasted the FedEx St. Jude invite, plus other tournament organizers might hear that he turned down the exemption from St. Jude and be weary to offer one to him down the road. And even if he qualified for the Open, how does playing as an amateur really benefit him down the road? The only way is that it might have clinched a spot on the Walker Cup team, but if he was already contemplating turning pro this summer, that wouldn't have mattered quite so much.
Reed was playing too well not to make the jump right now, hoping his hot play continues and maybe gets him closer to earning a PGA Tour card without having to go to Q school. Of course the move looks bad if he misses the cut tomorrow in Memphis, but that's a outcome that likely was worth the risk.
*** I don't know if Carter Newman is going to be a good professional golfer. I do know, however, that his play Friday, Saturday and Sunday secured his spot in the school's distinguished alumni list on a permanent basis. The Saturday tilt with Oklahoma State's Sean Einhaus was remarkable, particularly the clutch putts Newman made on the last three holes. A 25-footer, downhill for par to halve the 17th hole. An seven-footer for birdie that extended the match into extra holes (after Einhaus had just rolled in a 15-footer). And then the five-footer for par on the first extra hole to win the match and seal ASU's win over the Cowboys. After that last one fell, and his teammates mobbed him, Newman could be heard saying "I didn't think I could do it." He later admitted that in pressure situations he has struggled handling his emotions.
But, and here comes one of my pious "beauty of college athletics" moments, Newman got the job done, a lesson that he will take with him for the rest of his life. It's something that college sports provides student-athletes, an opportunity to define yourself and your character not just for that instance but for a lifetime. Like scoring a winning touchdown, or hitting a three-pointer at the buzzer, Newman's heroics are why college sports is not just so fun to watch but so important.
***__ I don't think I want to face Peter Uihlein in any sort of match-play event this summer. The Oklahoma State junior was beaten badly by Reed in their semifinal match, 8 and 7, a disappointing way to close out a fine junior season with the Cowboys. Reed played great (six birdies in 11 holes), but Uihlein wasn't on his game, something I think that will fuel him in the coming months. According to OSU assistant Alan Bratton, Uihlein will be playing a "light" schedule this summer in order to peak for the U.S. Amateur in August and his likely participation in Walker Cup in September. There hasn't been a repeat Amateur champion since Tiger Woods won from 1994-96; like with the NCAA title, I could see that drought coming to an end this year.
*** I saw a lot of random people on Twitter and the Internet chiming in about how unbelievable it was that the NCAA Championship wasn't on TV last weekend. The usual lament was that college softball and baseball get plenty of time on ESPN, why can't Golf Channel do the same for college golf? As a avid college golf fan, I agree. Yet at the risk of contradicting myself here, I understand and appreciate why they weren't on TV.
The issue, not surprisingly, is all about money; the production costs of televising the golf championship on TV are estimated to be in the mid-six-figure range. Additionally, CBS and Turner own the rights to all NCAA Championships, which in certain sports they sublease for a fee to other neworks/cable channels (hence the wall-to-wall softball and baseball coverage). Sure Golf Channel could try to get the men's and women's championship, but then it must either pay the production costs itself or find a sponsor to help cover the tab. The former is highly unlikely (GC is a for-profit entity, after all, and college golf doesn't exactly fit the definition of a "loss leader") and the later has proven to be difficult in the current economic environment. (I spoke with a couple of NCAA men's committee folks and they said that there are some inquires about a sponsor but nothing solid at this point for 2012 or beyond.)
Thus college golf fans must accepting watching the championship via a webcast shown on NCAA.com. Is that satisfying? Hardly. But it is better than nothing.
*** In the coming days I'll post my "Way Too Early" top 10 for men's and women's golf. On the men's side in particular, the 2011-12 season could get very interesting. Only UCLA of the top ranked programs at the end of this year returns everybody. Others lose at least one if not multiple players who were key contributors this time around. What I'm trying to say is that there's going to be a lot of movement in the upper echelon of the game in the next 12 months, which will be nothing if not exciting.