Men's nationals revisited
__20 WESTPORT ROAD, THIRD FLOOR, THIRD CUBICLE FROM THE WINDOW, WILTON, CONN.—__The remnants of Tropical Depression Barry followed me up the East Coast as I returned from Williamsburg, Va., and the 110th NCAA Championship. I don't mind a rainy 7½-hour drive all that much, so long as it doesn’t interfere with any tournament I’m covering. Thankfully, we had four glorious days of weather at Golden Horseshoe GC ... plenty of sun, low humidity, temps in the high 80s. I can only imagine what some of the coaches would have been saying about the thick rough they encountered last week had there been some showers and wind to contend with too.
Yes, a fair number of coaches and players weren’t all that thrilled with the set-up for the year’s biggest tournament. Like when the Homestead hosted nationals in 2004, the rather diminutive size of Golden Horseshoe GC’s 6,803-yard Gold course played to the strengths of some teams (victorious Stanford most notably) and handcuffed others (second-place Georgia most notably).
The Bulldogs, ranked No. 1 entering the postseason, have a team of long-ball hitters that have used their length to their advantage throughout the 2006-07 season, winning five tournaments including the East Regional. Yet to avoid hitting through Golden Horseshoe’s fairways and into its overseeded rye-grass rough, Chris Haack’s group had to leave their drivers in their bags a fair amount, causing a bit of frustration among his starting five. In turn, the Bulldogs didn’t think their way around the course very well, according to Haack himself, made some bad swings with wedges in their hands and after 36 holes had dug a hole (282-289, 18 shots back of Stanford in 16th place) just too deep to get out of.
Another team hampered by the claustrophobic confines found in Colonial Williamsburg was Pac-10 champion Southern California. Out at the West Regional at ASU’s Karsten Course, the Trojans could free-wheel it and make tons of birdies. That wasn’t the case in Virginia, where the team wound up missing the 54-hole cut and had to settle for watching USC freshman Jamie Lovemark claim the individual title.
It wasn’t just the length of the course but the speed of the greens too that had some wondering. “They said that they were rolling to a 10 on the stimpmeter,” noted one first-team All-American. “Well if it was true, than we play all the rest of our tournaments at a 15.” (NCAA folks told me the greens weren't "scalped" out of fear that with the heat and the numerous players they might become distressed.)
You can make the argument that had the same 30 teams played Golden Horseshoe’s Green course (site of the 2001 East Regional and 2004 U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links Championship), the outcome might have been far different. Of course, that’s the case every year. The style of course where the NCAA Championship is held makes a huge difference regarding how many teams have a legitimate chance to claim the title. When the NCAA golf committee names host courses, I don’t think many people pay all that much attention. Well they should. Suffice it to say, the next four years, nationals will be played on hefty tracks—Purdue’s Kampen Course in West Lafayette, Ind., Inverness Club in Ohio, The Honors Course in Chattanooga, Tenn., and Oklahoma State's Karsten Creek GC in Stillwater, Okla. Bombers rejoice!!
All that said, while the Gold course might have yielded a few low scores, it was a worthy venue for the national championship. Nothing wrong with making kids have to use their brains to get around in red numbers rather than just their brawn.
Also, before I get some nasty comments from Cardinal fans, I believe a very deserving champion was crowned Saturday. No other school could sustain the level of play that Stanford did for four days. Junior Rob Grube showed why he deserved to be among our top-10 players to watch last September with his third-place individual finish. Joseph Bramlett looked like an experienced senior out there rather than a freshman, bouncing back from a tough first round to close with a 68-70-69. And don’t forget Daniel Lim’s final-round 69 either. During the team meeting the previous night, each Cardinal had a chance to speak. When it got to Lim, a sophomore from Cupertino, Calif., he let his teammates know he would have his game face on by saying, “I don’t know what everyone else is thinking but I’m just going to try to beat the crap out of you guys.”
As his team was celebrating by the 18th green Saturday, I asked Stanford alum-turned-coach Conrad Ray at what point during the regular season did he really, truly believe he had a team that could pull off something like it did last week. Initially he said when the group won the Gopher Invitational last September, the school’s first team win in seven years. But then he stopped himself.
“Let me change that … the first qualifying round,” Ray said. “We reported about 10 days before we took off for the first event of the year in Minnesota. We had two 64s, a 66, a 67 something like that. First round of qualifying. And everyone kind of looked at each other. Joe Bramlett shot 29 on the front nine of qualifying. We’re thinking, 'OK, now we can get started.’ From that point forward I think this group has been so dedicated.”
Last weekend's victory is a testament to what Ray, along with assistant coach Sam Puryear, has done in his three short years back on the Farm. With the exception of Houston, no once-dominant golf power had fallen as far as the Cardinal had after coach Wally Goodwin retired in the late 1990s.
The scary thing too, Stanford have a couple of studs in Sihwan Kim, the 2004 U.S. Junior champ, and__Steve Ziegler__ coming in next fall, replacing seniors Zack Miller and Matt Savage, and former U.S. Junior runner-up Jordan Cox was back at home unable to crack the starting lineup. Don’t look now, but Stanford is back … and with a vengeance.
Other thoughts from a week avoiding the militia in Colonial Williamsburg:
__1) __Lost somewhat in Stanford's final-round runaway was the fact that the other two schools playing in the final threesomes were Coastal Carolina and Charlotte. I personally think this speaks volume for just how competitive men's college golf has become.
Charlotte coach Jamie Green joked after the third round that his players are a little tired having their team be referred to as a "mid-level" school. This is understandable considering the 49ers were ranked in the top 25 most of the year, having won five tournaments. The point Green went on to make, however, explains a lot as to why these schools, along with Georgia State, have been making regular appearances at nationals.
"You know I’ve said for a couple years now, golf’s different," Green noted. "You don’t have to recruit an entire offensive line. You don’t have to get a secondary. In golf, if you’ve got some hard working kids and they’ve got some talent, you can get competitive quick. … And whether or not the history of their school’s name [is big], they don’t really care. They just know they have an opportunity to play the golf course and that’s pretty good.”
Asked how he was able to build a national contender at a small, young school in the Big South Conference, Coastal coach Allen Terrell says that he knows he's not going to sign AJGA All-Americans so instead he has to find the guys that the big schools pick over. "We don’t recruit necessarily the highest ranked players," he said."We try to get athletes that play other sports that have that internal competitiveness."
Nobody had heard of Dustin Johnson when he was coming out of high school in Myrtle Beach, S.C., but Terrell took a chance that he could straighten out the kid's tee shot and sharpen his wedge game. Four years later, the guy is a first-team All-American and has a real shot of making the U.S. Walker Cup team this September before starting what looks like will be a bright pro career.
The most important thing to take from the rise of the small school? If you're a high school golfer who wants to play college golf (or the parent of one), don't get hung up on going to a "traditional" golf power where you might not play all that much. Find the school that's right for you and get to work. You too can play for a national title.____
__2) __If I'm an athletic director at a "major" conference school and I'm looking to turn my golf program into a national contender, the first thing I do is get __Allen Terrell'__s cell phone number, ASAP.
2a) The next thing I do is get Jamie Green's.
__3) __Had SEC champion Tennessee been the second of the three teams tied for 14th place to get through Friday evening's playoff, which determined the 15 teams to make the 54-hole cut, and not Florida State, USC's Jamie Lovemark would have had a far tougher time winning medalist honors at nationals.
You see, only the top six players from teams not making the cut play the final 18 holes. If the Seminoles are bounced, their top player, Matt Savage, who was one stroke better than Lovemark through three rounds (four-under 206 to Lovemark's three-under 207), claims the fifth individual spot. Lovemark then would have had to face North Carolina's Martin Ureta (also at three-under 207) in a playoff for the sixth position. Ureta is no slouch; he qualified for the U.S. Open this morning. As it turns out, Florida State gets in as a team, Lovemark plays Saturday, shoots a second-straight 64 and wins by two shots.
Take this a step further ... if Lovemark doesn't shoot the 64, doesn't win the NCAA title, does he still win the Jack Nicklaus Award as national player of the year?
Something tell me Lovemark should text a thank you to FSU coach Trey Jones.
4a) If you do turn pro this summer, as the rumors at the NCAA Championship hinted, remember that you told every member of the press that asked last week that you were going to be back at USC not just this fall, but for three more years. They will all throw those quotes back in your face if you're not singing "Fight On" from the student section at a football game come October.
__7) __After watching Duke junior Michael Schachner shoot a 60 during the third round at Golden Horseshoe, I'm convinced that during the 2007-08 season we will see a collegiate player finally post a 59. My early guess: Florida's Billy Horschel.