NCAA Championships

Steeled by military service, Georgia Tech sophomore overcomes triple bogey to win NCAA individual title

May 27, 2024

Hiroshi Tai pitches on the eighth hole in the final round of the 2024 NCAA Championship.

C. Morgan Engel

CARLSBAD, Calif. — Hiroshi Tai, a 22-year-old sophomore at Georgia Tech, has faced far more challenging circumstances than suffering a triple bogey on Monday in his pursuit of the NCAA Division I men’s individual golf championship. For two years after high school in Florida, Tai served his required military service in the Singapore Navy before arriving to begin his college golf career at Georgia Tech.

Tai learned to fire machine guns—thankfully, not at anything live—and says he matured in ways he likely wouldn’t have had he gone straight to campus in Atlanta. Whether that worldly experience ultimately made a difference in how Tai handled his adversity at the Omni La Costa Resort & Spa, he showed remarkable resilience at the most critical time.

Coming off a triple-bogey 6 on the par-3 eighth hole—his 17th of the round after starting on 10—Tai drove into a fairway bunker on the ninth. The bunker lies have been difficult all tournament because of how deep the new sand is, and Tai had virtually no chance to reach the green, so he came up 40 yards short with his approach. From there, he hit a pitch to six feet, and with no clue at the time to the significance, Tai drained the par putt that would ultimately win him the national championship.

Four of the top eight ranked amateur golfers in the world—Vanderbilt’s past national champion Gordon Sargent, Virginia’s Ben James, Florida State’s Luke Clanton and Auburn's Jackson Koivun—all had chances to force a playoff. But none of their efforts succeeded, with Sargent’s third lip-out of the day being particularly brutal.

Nearly two hours after he had finished his round of one-under-par 71, Tai lifted the individual trophy with a three-under-par 285 total, becoming the fourth player in Georgia Tech men’s golf history to do so. Six players finished second—Illinois’ Tyler Goecke (71) and Max Herendeen (72), Koivun (71), Clanton (71), Sargent (72) and James (73).

Tai’s performance was huge for his team, with Georgia Tech earning the eighth and final berth in the match-play competition that begins at La Costa on Tuesday to crown a team champion. The Yellow Jackets finished the 72 holes at 25 over and edged Oklahoma by a single shot. The Sooners struggled late, with Ryder Cohen taking a double-bogey 7 and Jase Summy a 6 at the par-5 18th.

Illinois, ranked 18th by Golfweek at the end of the regular season, continued its strong play by shooting four under for the day to finish at six under overall and earn the top seed for match play. The Illini were an impressive 16 shots better than Vanderbilt (10 over), which was followed by Virginia (11 over), North Carolina (11 over), Florida State (12 over), Auburn (19 over), Ohio State (22 over) and Georgia Tech.

Florida, the defending national team champion, did not make it to match play, finishing 11th at 29 over.

In the aftermath, Tai, who was 70th in the World Amateur Golf Rankings heading into the event, said he was not aware of his standing, and that was probably good thing, considering that Georgia Tech head coach Bruce Heppler said the scoreboard during the round incorrectly showed that Tai reached seven under overall, which he never did.


Hiroshi Tai and Georgia Tech head coach Bruce Heppler discuss a shot.

C. Morgan Engel

“I didn’t know [his standing] the whole back nine,” Tai said. “I had an idea with the camera crew following my group. I figured every shot counted for the team, so my main focus was that—get to match play.”

Tai was bogey-free through 16 holes, so his troubles at the eighth were shocking. The par 3 was difficult to play because of a prevailing wind at the players’ backs, and there was a bunker and deep fescue to avoid behind the green. Tai’s tee shot came up short in a terrible lie in the bunker, for which he had one foot in the sand and one out. Heppler said Tai considered just dumping his next shot into the same bunker for a better lie, but he tried to escape on a first try, lost his balance and sculled his ball way over the green. From a bare lie and a tree in his line, Tai made the safest play by hitting into another bunker, but that blast settled to 30 feet, and Tai two-putted for triple.

A player with less poise and composure might have lost it there, but Tai said, “Coach Heppler was there with me. He talked me through it.”

Even when Tai drove into a fairway bunker at his last hole, the ninth, Heppler had confidence he could recover, considering how much he’d rallied earlier in the week. Tai opened with a 67, but skied to a second-round 77 that included his first triple bogey of the week.

“I think he’s a really good iron player, and the greens here are really tough,” the coach said. “You’ve got to hit it into the right section and carry it the right distance. He’s a really good iron player, a heck of a wedge player, and I thought this would be a good place for him once we saw it after the practice round.”

The victory was Tai's third of his college career. After his military service, he started at Georgia Tech in the spring of 2022 and later that fall Tai won twice in a four-event stretch as a freshman. It also clinches berths in two men's major championships. In 2023, both the Masters and U.S. Open extended exemptions into its events for the reigning NCAA D-I individual champion so long as he remains an amateur. 

La Costa North, renovated over the last year by architect partners Gil Hanse and Jim Wagner, specifically with the idea of hosting the men’s and women’s Division I championships for at least three years, more than held its own against arguably the best amateur players in the world. Only 10 players finished under par, and for the 72 holes the field averaged 75.25.

Led by renowned head coach Mike Small, Illinois is seeking its second championship final appearance, having lost to Alabama in 2013. The Illini were lightly regarded entering the tournament, but the T-2 individual performances of Goecke and Herendeen have been enormous. Of course, those scores now mean nothing heading into match play.

“One of the greatest days in golf, in my opinion,” Heppler, whose team faces Illinois, said of the fifth day of the tournament, in which the eight teams are cut to four, and then to two over the span of more than 12 hours.

After barely reaching the match play, the Yellow Jackets are now looking to avenge their finals loss to Florida last year. They will have to do so without World Amateur No. 1 Christo Lamprecht, who has been out since the first round with a back injury.