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NCAA postseason: Asking the tough question

Two summers ago, in the sweltering heat and humidity that often marinates Hilton Head Island, S.C., in July, Mike Holder came up to me and asked what seemed at the time to be a fairly innocuous question: How would you make the NCAA Championship better?

I was covering the AJGA's Rolex Tournament of Champions at Long Cove Club, and he was there recruiting high schoolers to come to his fabled program at Oklahoma State. Holder had just accepted a spot on the NCAA men's Division I golf committee and hinted that changes might be in store down the road. Having written a profile for Golf World on the legendary coach, still four months removed from him stepping down as Cowboys' coach to take the OSU athletic director's job, I knew Holder had some ideas rattling around his head. Nevertheless, he was not afraid to seek out other opinions, even from a member of the jaded media. I told him I'd think about it and send some suggestions via e-mail.

As it turns out, I never got around to passing anything on to Holder (blame my editors for all the work they gave me). Apparently, though, he and the other five members of the committee weren't holding their breath. Since meeting last June following the 2007 NCAA Championship, the committee (which Holder is about to become chair) has crafted two proposals that revamp the structure of the postseason, each set for review by the NCAA Championships Cabinet at its next meeting in September. The first increases the number of Division I regional sites from three to six, effective in 2008-09. The second calls for the NCAA individual winner to be determined after 54 holes rather than the current 72, effective for the coming 2007-08 season.

Even more sweeping, however, is a third proposal that fundamentally changes how the NCAA men's team champion is determined and appears close to being finalized, the golf committee set to convene via conference call next Monday and likely give it its seal of approval. The plan would have 30 schools advance from regionals to nationals (same as the current setup) where they would play 54 holes of traditional medal play. At that point, the top eight teams would advance to a three-day medal/match play competition (a la the NCAA basketball tournament) to determine the national champion.

"I've been around a long time, and I think that's one of the best [idea] I've heard," said Gregg Grost, a former college coach and the current executive director of the Golf Coaches' Association of America.

Indeed, at a town-hall meeting of coaches held by the GCAA at last week's U.S. Junior Amateur, a majority of the roughly 80 attendees polled said they were in favor of the plan, which if approved by the NCAA would go into affect for the 2008-09 season. (Conversely, when asked about crowning an individual champion after 54 holes, 32 voted against the idea while 27 were for it, the rest abstaining.)

In writing a story about these proposals for this week's issue of Golf World, I noted that there will be many college golf fans who wonder why try fixing the NCAA postseason if it's not broken. Admittedly, I can't say I thought there was anything wrong with the current 72-hole, stroke-play format.

Still, I keep coming back to the question Holder posed to me two years ago. How would you make the NCAA Championship better? This plan, which amounts to the biggest change to the college postseason in decades, may well be the answer.

College golf has received some criticism in the recent past. Earlier this year in Golf Digest, an article by Hank Haney suggested golfers who aspired to be the world's best players might be better served by not playing college golf. Agree or disagree with the premise, it ultimately got people thinking about ways to make college golf more attractive.

To make college golf more attractive to casual golf fans, something radical probably is in order. The current scoring format for college tournaments—play five players/count four scores—simply is too confusing for anyone but but friends and family members of current college golfers to stay interested. I've covered the college beat since 1997, and I still have trouble figuring out where everything stands during the course of a tournament. It's the single biggest negative the sport has. Creating a championship structure, then, that doesn't rely on that format is a move forward.

Consider this past June's NCAA Championship. Media accounts around the country detailed Stanford's victory. Forgotten in most pieces, though, were how other teams fared. Do you remember who finished tied for third? Charlotte and Lamar. How about who finished fifth? Coastal Carolina. Each had its best finish in school history, yet only the small universe of people familiar with college golf understand how good a performance each school had. Not casual fans at any rate.

Casual fans can, however, identify with the idea of Charlotte, Lamar and Coastal Carolina advancing to the "Elite Eight" or reaching the semifinals before being knocked out of the NCAA tournament by eventual champion Stanford. So too can the mainstream media.

Indeed, the potential for more media coverage, whether print or electronic, of college golf is no small reason to consider changing the format. After all, college golf struggles to get its championship televised live despite the existence of national cable network devoted to golf and two national cable networks devoted to college sports.

There are questions remaining regarding the details of implementing the new plans (how do you score individual matches, what happens if there's a tie, etc.). Thankfully the golf committee isn't letting such minutiae bog things down just yet. These are things that can be worked out. The bigger issue now is whether the Division I women's golf committee will follow the men's lead and consider changing the structure of the women's championship. Having the champion of college golf determined one way for the men and one way for the women would be a bit disjointed to say the least.

Ultimately, all the proposals will have to go through the NCAA's multi-level approval process, with no guarantee that they'll come out the same way they came in. Still, that we've gotten to this point says a lot for the fact that the powers that be in college golf are determined to look to the future.

How would you make the NCAA Championship better? It's a question you can never stop trying to answer.