There will be a new national champion in men’s college golf—and plenty of debate as to just how worthy a winner it will be.
Oklahoma State, victorious at the NCAA Championship in 2018, has been ranked No. 1 throughout the 2018-’19 season, winning six times and sporting a talented lineup that includes newly crowned NCAA individual champion Matthew Wolff and the reigning U.S. Amateur champion (Viktor Hovland). Through 72 holes of stroke-play qualifying at Blessings Golf Club in Fayetteville, Ark., the Cowboys’ dominance continued as they shot a 16-under 1,136, an emphatic 31 strokes better than runner-up Vanderbilt.
But all that wasn’t enough to get them into the 2019 finals, as Oklahoma State’s attempt at its first repeat NCAA title in school history was thwarted by Texas on Wednesday afternoon in the semifinals.
OSU’s Hovland and Austin Eckroat won two points, while Texas’ Cole Hammer and Pierceson Coody grabbed two for the Longhorns (Hammer beating Wolff, 4 and 3). That meant it all came down to the match between a pair of seniors, Zach Bauchou for OSU and Steven Chervony for UT.
Their see-saw affair became an instant classic, or an anti-acid salesman special depending on whether you had skin in the game. Tied through 14 holes, Chervony won the 15th with a par to take his first lead of the day, only to lose the 16th with a bogey and the 17th when Bauchou made a clutch birdie. But Chervony, bio major from Boca Raton, Fla., holed a 15-foot birdie effort on the 18th to send the match to extra holes.
“We were going back and forth all day,” Chervony said. “I knew anything could happen. It’s match play.”
Back to the par-4 first, both players hit solid drives that found the fairway and each gave themselves birdie looks with their approach shots. Chervony cozied up his 14 footer for a conceded par after Bauchou had left himself a three-footer now needed to extend the match. Unfortunately for the 23-year-old from Forest, Va., his ball caught the lip and horseshoed around the hole, leaving the crowd stunned at the shocking conclusion.
“I’m feeling for Oklahoma State right now,” said Texas men’s coach John Fields. “A great team. Great players all of them and great coaches. To have it come down the way it did, it’s tough for Zach. But on the other hand, I’m excited for our guys. We worked really hard this year. I think our coaching staff did a good job of not getting in the way of our guys’ dreams. And they dreamt about this moment and here we are.”
“What good theater we had there,” said OSU men’s coach Alan Bratton. “You hate to see it end like that there. You don’t see lipouts like that very often. But there was no one on our team I’d want in that spot more than Zach, that’s why he was in that spot. He’s been a star for us.”
Indeed, Bauchou played a vital role in OSU’s NCAA victory a year ago, winning his match, 8 and 7, as the Cowboys swept Alabama in the finals, 5-0. But the disappointment was obvious on Tuesday, Bauchou in tears as he walked back to the clubhouse, the finality of the moment sinking in.
After an emotional morning and afternoon—to face Oklahoma State, Texas first had to knock off another Big 12 rival, Oklahoma, 3-2 in the quarterfinals—the Longhorns now will play Stanford in the championship match on Wednesday. Tee times have been moved up to the morning, beginning at 6:45 a.m. local time, in hopes of avoiding bad weather forecast for the area.
The Cardinal also used some late-match heroics to get through their semifinal showdown with Vanderbilt. The two schools had split their first four matches, the final outcome coming down to Stanford’s Daulet Tuleubayev and Harrison Ott. Tuleubayev had been 4 up with five holes to play, but the freshman from Kazakhstan lost the 14th, 15th and 17th to make things a bit more interesting. On the 18th, however, he holed a 18-foot birdie putt to send Stanford to the finals for the first time since the start of the match-play era in 2009.
The Cardinal came into the NCAA Championship on a late-season heater, having won their final regular-season event (Western Intercollegiate), the Pac-12 title and the NCAA Stanford Regional. After grabbing the No. 6 seed in stroke-play qualifying, coach Conrad Ray’s squad knocked off Wake Forest in the morning quarterfinals.
“I normally don’t get that emotional out there. And I think it’s something that’s different about playing on a college golf team,” Tuleubayev said. “As you’re walking down the stretch, you can see the other guys who are there with you and putting their time into it. Finishing well for them makes it a lot more emotional than when it’s just you.”
While the Texas/Stanford winner will walk away with the hardware, whether their NCAA title will come with an asterisk might be debated by some given Oklahoma State’s outstanding play the first four days at nationals. To his credit, Bratton was gracious in defeat, accepting his team’s fate, as cruel and bitter as it might have seemed.
“We had a fantastic year,” Bratton said. “That’s not the way we wanted the week to end. You’ve got to give Texas credit. They got three points and that’s what it takes to win.”
Over two seasons, the Cowboys won 16 team titles, one of the finest stretches of in college golf history. But the abrupt finish on Tuesday marks a likely turning point for the squad. Bauchou is graduating, and most expect Wolff, a sophomore, and Hovland, a junior, to turn pro in the coming weeks rather than return to school in the fall. It’s the end of an era, of sorts, at OSU. One that didn’t finished quite the way the team had hoped.