News & ToursJune 3, 2008

NCAA Men's Championship: 72 hours later

__NOT IN THE BASEMENT OF MACKEY ARENA--__Saw the end of an era this past weekend at Purdue's Kampen Course as UCLA and Bruin senior Kevin Chappell became answers to a trivia question.

What team and individual won the last men's NCAA Championship contested under 72 holes of stroke-play competition?

That it was as dramatic a finish as you could have ever wanted--three teams separated by two strokes when play concluded--does make changing the format to just about anything else seem a little odd. Yet we all need to remember there have been some snoozer finishes in recent years--Florida 2001, Georgia 2005, Stanford 2007. With the bracketed competition that we'll see beginning next spring, the showdown of two teams, mano-a-mano, in whatever format is selected should provide great theater on a more consistent basis. Just because last week's competition was so interesting shouldn't immediately make everyone wonder why the format is being changed anyway.

Some other thoughts from my time dodging tornadoes in Indiana:

__1.) __I spent the final round following the last threesome of Chappell, USC's Tim Sluiter and Clemson's Kyle Stanley. This has become part of my routine covering college tournaments: follow the last group of the teams that are in the lead entering the final 18 holes. Typically, these golfers will have a big impact on the outcome of the team competition (they're playing the best on the teams that are playing the best) plus they're usually the leaders in the individual competition as well.

Yet my grand plans nearly blew up on me, thanks to defending champion Stanford. As I'm standing by the 14th green Saturday, looking at the leader board, I can see that the Cardinal, playing in an earlier wave of schools, has just finished its final round and sits at 43 over for the tournament, seven back of the Bruins and six behind the Trojans. Mind you, for the last 40 minutes I have been watching the two Pac-10 teams with holes to play leaking bogeys all over Pete Dye's layout. That's when panic starts to hit me: UCLA and USC might have too many holes to play. Stanford might be sitting by the 18th green, watching their rivals fall right past them as they earn a second-straight title. If that's the case, I'd have to write a game story for the magazine about a team that I hadn't seen hit a shot during the final round. Not ideal.

Chappell's amazing bogey on the 17th, and par on No. 18, saves me from this fate. Now, I genuinely don't care who wins or loses these things, but I need to thank our NCAA medalist for making my job writing the gamer Saturday night a lot easier.

__2.) __After blogging about Chappell's third-round 68 last week, the fact I wrote that it was among the top five best rounds I've seen while covering college golf got a little attention from other websites. I stand by what I said, but figured I'd offer up the other four on my list. Remember, these are rounds I've seen in person, so certain performances such as Washington's Zack Bixler shooting a 60 earlier this season aren't up for consideration because I wasn't at the Alister MacKenzie Invitational.

No. 5: George Tech senior Bryce Molder shoots 60 in the final round of the 2000 Golf World Collegiate.

*        Molder didn't win the tournament, that honor reserved for Oklahoma State junior Anders Hultman, who shot a final-round 63 while playing in the same threesome. "I kind of drafted off [Bryce]," claimed Hultman, who birdied all 12 par 5s during the tournament. "It was a matter of giving myself chances. That's all I could really do. You don't expect a guy to shoot a 60." Meanwhile, the third player in their group, Georgia's Erik Compton, shot a 68.*

No. 4: Chappell's 68.

No. 3: Georgia sophomore Ryuji Imada's final-round 67 at Hazeltine National during the 1999 NCAA Championship.

*    A bogey-free round that included a 70-foot eagle on the par-5 seventh that turned the momentum in the Bulldogs favor--he was Georgia's only player under-par that day--as they snatched the team title from Oklahoma State. "That's one of the great last rounds in NCAA history," said Cowboy coach Mike Holder* afterward. "If he goes out and plays 'a good round,' which here is 73, 74, then we're the winner."

No. 2: Washington junior James Lepp shooting a final-round 63 at Caves Valley in the 2005 NCAA Championship.

It got the Canadian native in a playoff for medalist honors with Pepperdine's Michael Putnam, which he won on the third extra hole.

No. 1: Arkansas junior Stacy Lewis shoting a final-round 66 at LPGA International to win the 2007 NCAA Women's Championship.

It was the lowest round of the week by two strokes and included a run of five straight birdies that allowed her to make up a six-stroke deficit entering the final 18 holes to claim the title.

3.) Jamie Lovemark's disappearance during the NCAA Championship was pretty mind-boggling. Here is the defending NCAA champion, who closed with a 64-64 last year to win the title, and this time around the USC sophomore shot a 79-75-78-75 to finish T-43. Considering the Trojans lost the team title by two measly strokes, you can figure out for yourselves the impact it had on Southern California not to have their best player bring even his "B" game.

"It's a shame," said USC coach Chris Zambri after the third round, which turned out to be the second round of the tournament that Lovemark's score didn't count for the Trojans. "I don't know what to say."

In talking to a observer who has watched the program to figure out why the difference from 2007 and 2008, I was told it was actually easy to see what happened at the Kampen Course coming. Watching Lovemark working on the practice range after the third round at Purdue, the observer noted: "That's the hardest he's worked all spring. He worked his tail off last year before nationals so it was no surprise that he won. This year, he didn't and you can see what happens."


4.)__ Sluiter was understandably disappointed with the 81 he shot in the final round Saturday, but I hope he realizes that without the 70-73-73 he posted the first three days, his team isn't close to being in the hunt for a title. Keep your chin up, Tim.


5.)__ Says a lot about Stanley, too, that after shooting a final-round 82, he came back and shot a 71-66 in U.S. Open sectional qualifying to earn a spot in the field at Torrey Pines next week.


6.)__ Troy Merritt got robbed by not earning first-team All-American honors. The senior from Boise State  won seven tournaments (including five in a row), posted a 69.53 stroke average (best in the country) and finished top three in par-3, par-4 and par-5 scoring. The knock, of course, is that he didn't play in any top-tier events during the season, nor did he compete at the NCAA Championship.

The problem I have with this is what kind of message does it send to aspiring players competing on lower-profile teams? What more did Merritt, the Western Athletic Conference player of the year who won his conference tournament by 10 strokes, have to do to warrant first-team honors? Win all 13 of his starts? If I'm Joe Golfer at Small State University, what incentive do I have to set making first-team All-American as a goal when I know that I can win 54 percent of my tournaments and still be snubbed?

Perhaps you can make the argument that Merritt's victory total was inflated because of the lack of serious competition he faced, but it's hard to fake the stroke average.

I don't have a specific formula for what I think a first-team All-American should have accomplished ... I just know it when I see it. And I know I saw it in Merritt, regardless of the name of the school that appears on his bag.


7.)__ Thing I didn't think I would see on the leader board at day's end Saturday, Part I:

13. Alabama, 66-over

The nation's top-ranked school entering the tournament never got on track in Indiana. You just hope seniors Michael Thompson,Mark Harrell,Joseph Sykora and Matt Hughes will remember they did lead the Crimson Tide to their best ever regular season and forget about the four days at nationals.


8.)__ Thing I didn't think I would see on the leader board at day's end Saturday, Part II:

15. Middle Tennessee State, 73-over

This is a team with hardly any budget and a first-year head coach (Whit Turnbow) yet the Blue Raiders were the first team in the school's history to play on the final day of an NCAA Championship ... IN ANY SPORT!!!


9.)__ I'm feeling bad for O.D. Vincent right about now, but I'm guessing he isn't. The UCLA squad was all Vincent's recruits, and he knew when he left the school last summer to take the job at Duke that he might have been giving up an incredible chance at winning an NCAA title. Vincent was in attendance last week, but laid low as was to be expected. His replacement, Derek Freeman, praised him in interviews for building the foundation.

I'm sure no one was rooting harder for the Bruins than Vincent. That's just the class guy he is.


10.)__ Down the Big Ten road in Columbus, Ohio, news is that long-time Ohio State men's coach Jim Brown will step down at the end of next season. Brown says he's been thinking about it for a few years, and since he's coming on his 65th birthday, the timing is right. Brown has coached at his alma mater since 1974 and in his more than four decades coaching (he was also at Kent State and Rollins) his teams have 157 tournament victories.

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