124th U.S. Open

Pinehurst No. 2

College golf

Auburn's golfer of destiny leads Tigers to first NCAA men's golf title

May 30, 2024

J.M. Butler is mobbed by his Auburn teammates after clinching the winning point in the NCAA men's final.

C. Morgan Engel

CARLSBAD, Calif. — A story was making the rounds on Wednesday evening about the meeting J.M. Butler, then a high school senior, had with Auburn men’s golf coach Nick Clinard in his office. The recruit from Louisville, Ky., said very passionately that he wanted to win a national championship in his college career. It didn’t matter that he would be coming to a Tigers program that had never reached the summit.

It made for a tidy full-circle tale when Butler, a senior, secured the winning point on Wednesday as top-ranked Auburn did capture its first national title with a tense 3-2 victory over Florida State at the Omni La Costa Resort & Spa to cap the 2024 NCAA Championship. But there are dozens of junior golfers who walk into a coach’s office and say they want to lift a trophy. It’s what they do to make that happen, and in Butler the Tigers got the player who would see it to the finish.

“It’s just a matter of following through and making sure that their commitments match their goals. That’s the biggest thing,” Clinard said on the La Costa North Course’s 17th green as his team celebrated in the background.

“I’ve never seen anybody work as hard as he does,” the coach added of Butler. “He’s so committed on and off the course to be the best version of himself every day.”

Butler described the journey more dramatically. “I just believe it was my destiny,” he said. “I always knew. I just always knew I was going to work as hard as I can every single day. And it didn't matter what was in front of me. As long as I had my teammates, that's all I needed.”

Butler, whose previous time in the national spotlight came when he reached the semifinals of last year’s U.S. Amateur Championship at Cherry Hills, went out as Auburn’s anchor in the No. 5 match against Florida State’s Luke Clanton for good reason: In Tuesday’s quarterfinals and semifinals, Butler didn’t trail once. And though Clinard certainly hoped his team might wrap up the match before needing Butler, he knew there was only one guy to put into that last spot.

“We knew he had a lot of guts, and he had a lot of heart, and he refuses to lose,” Clinard said.


Head coach Nick Clinard of the Auburn Tigers celebrates with the trophy as his team looks on after defeating Florida State.

C. Morgan Engel

In drawing Clanton, who entered the tournament ranked eighth in the World Amateur Golf Rankings, the 38th-ranked Butler faced an enormous test. And, with the teams trading two wins each in the afternoon’s earlier matches, the focus of about a thousand fans trailing the final twosome was intense.

There were only five holes won between the two over the first 11, and then Butler got the lead when Clanton bogeyed the long par-3 12th. His lead remained 1 up until the short, par-4 15th, when Clanton’s driving-iron tee shot found the first cut of rough, and he suffered a cruel break on the approach when his ball barely rolled over the steep bank behind the green and into the water.

With Butler 2 up, both men faced the ornery tee shot over water at the par-3 16th. Butler skied a beautiful wedge that found the very firm green, but his ball managed to trickle into the back bunker. Clanton matched with his own great shot that stayed on the green, but Butler produced a clutch bunker shot to concession range, and Clanton missed his birdie chance.

Clanton then needed to win the 17th to take the match to 18, but he drove into a fairway bunker and couldn’t get to the green with the second, while Butler was safely on in two. Then, after taking the flagstick out for his pitch, Clanton watched as his ball motored toward the hole, only to hit the back of the cup and bounce out. Might the flagstick have helped?

"He hit a great shot and it just had a little too much speed on it. Maybe if that flag was in, it could have changed it a little bit," FSU head coach Trey Jones said. "If it would have hit the pin and bounced out, we would have been sitting here saying, ‘Why didn’t he pull it?’ That’s the thing about golf."

Butler couldn’t make his birdie, but Clanton, with tears in his eyes, conceded, and Butler’s Auburn teammates rushed onto the green, eventually tackling their leader to the ground.

Minutes later, Butler still looked shellshocked. “I haven't really taken it in yet,” said Butler, wh confirmed that he will turn professional next week. “I feel still like I need to go to the 18th hole and hit a tee shot. I'm just kind of relieved and a little sore from all my guys tackling.”

The contrast of emotions was painfully obvious on the 17th green, with an inconsolable Clanton being surrounded and supported by his teammates. For a time, Clanton still held his wedge and golf glove in his hand.

"There’s no words for it," Jones said. "You can’t say I’ve been there before and it will be OK; they don’t want to hear that. You only get so many chances at a national championship, and you’re either very fortunate and you’re blessed the opportunity to win one. It didn’t go our way. We didn’t win. Golf is hard."

Later, after he’d posed for photos with his team, Clanton said, “All five of us out there playing today was a goal we were looking for over the last 364 days. To fall just short is really hard to handle, especially with the guys who are leaving. Those guys are brothers to me. I really wanted to give them a national championship.”

Auburn was the dominant team all season, losing only nine times in head-to-head matchups against all teams, and the Tigers won an impressive 10 tournaments, including a seventh straight with the national title. "I think that goes down as one of the best teams in the history of college golf,” Clinard said.

Still, all of that success created enormous pressure on the Tigers to finish it off, and things looked shaky in the early going of the final, with the Seminoles taking the lead in three matches early on.

Florida State, which finished the season at No. 6 in the rankings and was making its first championship match appearance, would get its two victories from a senior and freshman. In Match 1, Cole Anderson staved off a rally from Carson Bacha, 1 up, in the only battle that reached 18. And first-year player Tyler Weaver captured Match 3 over fellow freshman Josiah Gilbert, 2 and 1.

But Auburn was able to answer with a trio of newly named All-Americans in the final three slots. Freshman Jackson Koivun, winner of the season’s Ben Hogan and Fred Haskins awards, played up to his billing by capturing three straight holes to defeat FSU senior Brett Roberts, 5 and 4. And in the penultimate match, Auburn junior Brendan Valdes, another first-team All-American, came back from an early deficit by winning five of the last nine holes to beat Seminoles senior and No. 13-ranked Frederik Kjettrup.

The title for Auburn was a long time coming, with the Tigers having made 28 previous trips to the NCAA finals, while only making the match-play cut once.

"It doesn’t even feel real to be quite honest,” said Clinard, who is in his 15th season at Auburn’s helm. “We worked so hard for this, and I just got some great players and some great young men. I'm just so happy for them. It's all about them.”