With 18 holes to play at Blessings Golf Club in Fayetteville, Ark., on Monday, there was never much doubt that an Oklahoma State golfer would be crowned the NCAA individual champion for the ninth time in school history. Where the suspense would arise was which Oklahoma State golfer it might be. Sophomore Matthew Wolff started the final stroke-play round with a two-shot lead at seven under, while sophomore Austin Eckroat was the man just behind him. And senior Zach Bauchou sat five shots off the pace in a tie for fifth.
Yet after making the turn in even par, Wolff drained the drama out of individual race in much the same way OSU had done to the team competition (more on that in a moment). Birdies on the 10th, 15th and 17th holes let the 20-year-old from Agoura Hills, Calif., stretch his lead to as much as six strokes as he cruised to a five-shot victory over Georgia Southern’s Stephen Fisk with a closing three-under 69 and a 10-under 278 total.
“With the best amateurs in the world, to come out on top is really something special,” said Wolff, the first Cowboy since Jonathan Moore in 2006 to win medalist honors (Moore interestingly is OSU’s current strength coach). “Most other college events you get five or six really good teams. This has all the best players and all the best teams. So it really does mean a lot.”
Wolff, the national freshman of the year a year ago, likely wrapped up player-of-the-year honors with his latest triumph, his school-record sixth of the 2018-’19 college season. Known for his unorthodox swing (see below), the results it produces are just as eye-popping. In 11 starts on the season, Wolff’s worst finish was a T-18 at NCAA Regionals. In addition to his victories, he posted eight top-10 finishes and a 68.69 stroke average.
What made his triumph at nationals all the more impressive? Wolff opened the national championship with a four-over 40 on his first nine holes, making a double and three bogeys in an eight-hole span. He then proceeded to play the final 63 holes in 14 under, making 19 birdies and just five bogeys.
“That’s kind of something I’ve been working on since getting to college, just maturity,” Wolff said. “I didn’t let it affect me. I knew I had confidence coming into this week. Figured out something with my swing and my ball-striking and from then on thought that if I put myself in good places and keep on giving myself opportunities, they’ll keep dropping for the rest of the week. Just keeping a good frame of mind.”
After 72 holes, Wolff had distanced himself over the No. 2-ranked player in college golf, OSU teammate Viktor Hovland, by 12 strokes; the No. 3-ranked player, California’s Collin Morikawa, by 10 shots; the No. 4-ranked player, USC’s Justin Suh, by eight shots; and the No. 5-ranked player, Arizona State’s Chun An Yu, by seven shots.
As for Bauchou and Eckroat, they struggled on Monday, posting 75 and 78 respectively, both finishing T-8. Yet in some respects, it didn’t much matter. In the team competition, Oklahoma State led by 30 strokes to start the day, its No. 1 seed entering the match-play portion of the championship locked up. A 69 from senior Hayden Wood and a 71 from Hovland, the reigning U.S. Amateur champion, gave Alan Bratton’s squad the low score of the round (four-under 284) for the fourth straight day, and stretched its lead over No. 2-seed Vanderbilt to 31. To put that in perspective, the largest margin of victory at NCAAs when it was contested as 72 holes of stroke play was 33 strokes by Wake Forest in 1975.
The question now is whether Oklahoma State’s dominance can carry over into match play. Twice since 2009, when the NCAA team champion was determined in match play, OSU has earned the No. 1 seed only to fail to win the title, falling in the quarterfinals to Georgia in 2009 and the finals to Augusta State in 2010. In 2011, the Cowboys were also the dominant team throughout the season, only to fall in the semifinals of match play, again to Augusta State. But the team’s match-play jinx was cured a year ago, when the Cowboys rolled over Alabama in the finals on their home course at Karsten Creek en route to the school’s 11th national championship.
Surprisingly in OSU’s stored history, the Cowboys have never won back-to-back NCAA titles, giving this year’s squad an easy target to shoot for. Ranked No. 1 from start to finish on the season, winning six tournaments, this Oklahoma State team is more experienced and, as scary as it is to say, even a bit more hungry.
“Coming here this week, we’ve talked about it all year about winning the team championship,” said Wolff, who many believe will turn professional shortly after the NCAA Championship. “The individual championship is really nice, and obviously it’s probably the biggest tournament I’ve won thus far in my career, but you know it’s all about the team this week. I want to do everything I can to help my team and get OSU another one.”
It’s the same mindset the rest of Bratton’s crew carries into the next two days at nationals. And yet, the Cowboys will have their work cut out for them, with the quarterfinals and semifinals set for Tuesday and the finals on Wednesday.
Through 72 holes of stroke play, Blessings Golf Club did a fantastic job of identifying the top teams. Four of the remaining top six teams in the country—Wake Forest, Vanderbilt, Texas and Oklahoma—advanced through stroke play, each with lineups deep enough to upset the Cowboys or any other team in the bracket.
In the quarterfinals OSU will face SMU, the lone remaining Cinderella at NCAAs. The Mustangs were the last team to qualify to play in the NCAA Regionals but earned a spot in nationals at Blessings. On Monday, they shot a collective 15-over 303 to tie for eighth with Clemson. The two teams played off for the last spot into match play, with SMU making five pars to advance.
Headlined by former U.S. Junior Amateur champion Noah Goodwin, the Mustangs are also feeding off the emotion of coach Jason Enloe, who has overseen the squad this season despite the death last July of his wife, Katie, who suffered from leukemia. Suffice it to say, SMU is the feel-good story of the championship thus far.
Whether that emotional momentum can carry them past the nation's best college team is another matter.
NCAA Quarterfinal Matches – Tues., May 28
(All Times Local CST):
MATCH 1: 7 a.m. – Hole 1 – #2 Vanderbilt vs. #7 Texas A&M
MATCH 2: 7 a.m. – Hole 10 – #3 Wake Forest vs. #6 Stanford
MATCH 3: 7:50 a.m. – Hole 1 – #1 Oklahoma State vs. #8 SMU
MATCH 4: 7:50 a.m. – Hole 10 - #4 Texas vs. #5 Oklahoma
Semifinal Matches – Tues., May 28
MATCH 5: 1:30 p.m. – Hole 1 – Winners of Matches 1 and 2
MATCH 6: 2:20 p.m. – Hole 1 – Winners of Matches 3 and 4