It was easy to figure out how the final day of the 2018 NCAA Men’s Golf Championship was unfolding at Karsten Creek Golf Club. All you had to do was listen. When the roars started to cascade around the Tom Fazio course as the hot, sticky May afternoon played out, it was clear that the hometown team, Oklahoma State, was in control in its clash with Alabama, and it wasn’t going to let this championship get away.
When Matthew Wolff made a birdie on the par-3 15th to close out Davis Riley, 4 and 3, and clinch OSU’s third point, the sound—and the result—was unmistakable. The Cowboys had claimed their 11th national title, ending the second-longest title drought for the vaunted program since it won its first back in 1963 and vanquishing its loss to Alabama in the 2014 NCAA final.
The cheers from more than 3,000 spectators in attendance were drenched with joy, but contained drops of relief, too. The fans didn’t mind that the climax to a historic season in which the 2017-’18 Cowboys matched the school record with 10 team titles (in 13 starts) was missing the usual drama associated with a match-play final. They just wanted the W.
The same went for the players.
“It’s a dream really,” said Wolff, the national freshman of the year, who’s unusual swing has turned him into a celebrity of sorts this week. “And to do it in front of all these people, it’s special.”
How dominant a victory was it for Oklahoma State? Consider that the five-man lineup played the jaw-dropping equivalent of 21 under par on the day en route to a 5-0 victory, just the third match-play sweep in any round since 2012 and the first ever in the finals.
Arguably the most impressive part of Oklahoma State’s performance was the way the champions stared down the pressure of the moment and never flinched. The Cowboys were ranked No. 1 entering the championship and earned the No. 1 seed after they posted the low 72-hole score in stroke play. It was an open secret (some even calling it a curse) that no No. 1 seed had gone on to win the title since the NCAA added match play into the championship in 2009. Yet, anything less than a victory would have been considered a failure.
Adding to the pressure was the fact that other recent Cowboy squads facing similar circumstances had been unable to come through. OSU’s 2009 team was ranked No. 1, but lost in the quarterfinals. OSU’s 2010 team was ranked No. 1, but lost in the finals. OSU’s 2011 squad had future PGA Tour pros Peter Uihlein, Morgan Hoffmann and Kevin Tway, and was hosting the national championship at Karsten Creek, but they too stumbled, losing in the semifinals to eventual winner Augusta State.
But this was no repeat of the 2011. To the delight of the locals, every putt the Cowboys lined up on Wednesday seemed to drop. And it wasn’t just OSU coach Alan Bratton’s All-Americans, sophomore Viktor Hovland (a 4-and-3 winner over Lee Hodges to up his match-play record this week to 3-0) and Wolff carrying the load. But it was the entire lineup, freshman Austin Eckroat (1-up winner over Davis Shore) and senior Kristoffer Ventura (3 and 2 over Wilson Furr) each earning a point, Eckroat going 3-0 in match play for the week.
Nobody, though, was more dominant than Zach Bauchou. The junior from Forest, Va., teeing it up in the anchor fifth match against Jonathan Hardee, played the front nine in the equivalent of seven-under 29, including a hole-out for eagle from a greenside bunker on the par-5 ninth, to take a 7-up lead at the turn. Amazingly, his would the first point on the board for the Cowboys when he closed out the match, 8 and 7.
“The strength of my game was putting, and I kind of got it going,” Bauchou said.
And LeBron James kind of knows what it’s like to play in the NBA finals.
Even without hindsight, it was clear Alabama needed to get off to a hot start early to try to silence the spectators and keep OSU’s golfers from feeding off the cheers. But it just didn’t happen. Oklahoma State players won the first hole in three of the first four matches and took 22 of the first 45 holes overall. Furr was the only Alabama player able to get in front in his match as the team could only win eight holes on the front nine. Yet they shot the equivalent of four over par, hardly a horrendous number.
“We didn’t play that bad today. I know the score looks awful. They had like three guys seven and eight under,” said Alabama men’s coach Jay Seawell, who is now 2-2 in NCAA Championship matches, having lost in 2012, but won in 2013 and 2014. “You tip your cap. Our guys fought their tails off. They did it with class. I’ll never forget them.
“We wish it was the other way. It hurts a little bit, but they did everything we could ask from them as a coach.”
Since the start of the match-play era in 2009, Oklahoma State’s record in the championship has been as frustrating as it was disappointing. Five previous times, the Cowboys have advanced out of stroke play to get into the knock-out stage of the championship, but they never could be the last team standing.
In this midst of this, OSU did the unthinkable, failing to actually qualify for the NCAA Championship in 2012 and ending a string of 64 appearances at the national championship. A year later, OSU athletic director Mike Holder, formerly the school’s most celebrated golf coach, having won eight NCAA titles from 1973 to 2003, decided to change coaches. He replaced his successor, Mike McGraw, who coached the last OSU team to win NCAAs in 2006, and brought on one of his former players, Alan Bratton, in the summer of 2013.
Bratton is all Cowboy, a two-time first-team All-American who helped lead the program to the team title in 1995. No one is more aware of the school’s celebrated history, and its unwavering expectation for excellence. To Bratton’s credit, he’s been able to pass down the lore—OSU had finished in the top four at NCAAs 18 straight years from 1975 to 1992—to his players in a way that is meaningful but not overwhelming. The most recent example? He had their golf bags embossed with the years of the school’s NCAA titles.
“We’ve owed those guys a championship for a long time,” said Bratton, acknowledging OSU golfers from past title teams, several of whom were in attendance on Wednesday. “This is a special, special place, and today was about all those guys and this team. I’m just really proud of the performance. They took everything that people threw at them all year, and they got to live their dream right here.”
And as for the rest of the college golf world? Well, it might have been their nightmare. All five Oklahoma State starters had a sub-par scoring average in 2017-’18 and they all were inside the top 75 on the final Golfstat player rankings. Yet the squad loses only Ventura from this year’s championship lineup, leaving it loaded for bear come the 2018-’19 season and with the motivation that off the 10 previous titles, the Cowboys have never repeated as national champs.
“We’ve got four of them back,” Bratton said, “so they have more legacy to write.”
The saving grace? Next year’s NCAA Championship will be played at The Blessings Golf Club in Arkansas. It’s going to be a lot harder for another 3,000-plus rabid Oklahoma State fans to get there than it was to Karsten Creek.