NCAA Championship meets its match (play)
__TOLEDO--__At the risk of upsetting the traditionalists among college golf fans, I'm pretty excited about what could happen this week at the Inverness Club when the new look NCAA Championship makes its debut.
At the same time, though, I'm pretty nervous.
Just hear me out.
My excitement comes from the fact that I think the change in the format for the tournament, with the low eight teams after 54 holes of stroke play advancing to a match-play competition, offers several opportunities for some serious drama. Think of how much grinding we're going to see in the final stroke-play round as the 30 teams try to earn a spot in the Elite Eight?
And if that doesn't seem compelling enough, think of how intense the head-to-head, school-versus-school showdowns will be as we narrow the field to four teams, then two and ultimately a national champion. Tell me you don't think a Georgia vs. Georgia Tech match-up in any round won't be interesting? What if UCLA must face USC to get to the championship match?
Suffice it to say, that's the whole point of the switch, to make for a more compelling championship. And I'm not talking about just more compelling for fans. It's going to be more compelling for players. If I'm on a team that gets to match play, there's no question now whether my score is going to count toward the team's outcome. All five players will have an equal impact. Every golfer knows he's being counted on. As one coach told me, now it's a matter of "go whip somebody or be whipped."
On to my nervousness. For starters, if you believe the weather forecasts for the next few days, the most important piece of equipment the players might be carrying is their umbrellas. Trying to get 54 holes in for all 30 teams in three days with any significant weather issues will be tricky. And with any weather delays, we're going to hear coaches grumbling about being in a bad draw and not having a fair shake to be one of the eight moving on to match play.
More to the crux of my anxiety, I have really no idea how this thing will play out. Who does the new format favor? Will a Cinderella emerge? What if the matches are lopsided?
A quick point to remember before venturing into some bracketology: With only 54 holes of stroke play to get into the Elite Eight, one bad round can be a killer. Consider how things shook out at the revamped regionals. Specifically, consider how things shook out for Clemson in the Northeast Regional. The Tigers were the top seed but with an opening-round 310, they essentially eliminated themselves after 18 holes. The same could very well happen for a marquee school (Alabama? Georgia Tech? Florida?) this week.
At the same time, I think there are some top-ranked schools that won't fall into that trap. Three in particular standout:
I just think the depth on these three teams is such that there's little chance more than two players will have an off day at any given time. So, three down, five to go.
The next thing to consider is the horses-for-courses factor. There are some schools that will find Inverness very similar to the style of courses they practice/play on. Illinois, for example, knows from lengthy, narrow, tree-lined layouts with thick rough and slick greens. Same for Stanford.
Meanwhile, momentum can't be overlooked, as it is directly tied to a team's confidence. I like the roll Arkansas is on. Granted, the Razorbacks have no wins this spring, but they have finished second in their last four tournaments with no starter having worse than a 74.50 average. I also think UCF's victories at the Conference USA Championship and then the Southeast Regional could help carry this squad farther than some might expected.
That leaves me one more pick, my wild card that I'm going to use on defending NCAA champion UCLA. Call it a hunch, but I think this is a talented team that no longer has the pressure of trying to get into the NCAA postseason to worry about. Moreover, Bruin senior Erik Flores is hitting his stride at just the right time.
As for a individual champion--who will be decided after 54 holes--I have two choices, neither of whom will win me any awards for being risky. Clemson's Kyle Stanley doesn't have to worry about the team aspect of anything this week (as was the case when he finished runner-up at nationals in 2007), and I think he's so focused on winning this thing (and what it might do for his pro prospects with endorsements and sponsor's exemptions) that he'll be your medalist. And if it's not Stanley, I'll go with Florida's Billy Horschel, a player who always seems to step up in big events.
OK, so what happens with my final eight? Well, if I can successfully figure out the order they might finish in, I need to quit my golf writing job and go to Las Vegas. If I were to try, however, this is what I think might happen.
I'd then have OSU beating UCF, and going on to face Stanford, a winner over UCLA. My other semifinal would be Washington knocking off Illinois to go play against Georgia.
From there, OSU defeats Stanford and Georgia outlasts Washington.
That leaves the Cowboys and Bulldogs, a match-up we've all been curious to see to cap the 2008-09 season. I'm picking OSU, primarily because I like how they're starters fare in match play. Morgan Hoffmann and Rickie Fowler have both advanced to the quarterfinals at the U.S. Amateur. __Kevin Tway __has won the U.S. Junior. Peter Uihlein has won matches in major national events. That leaves Trent Leon as your weak link, and if an All-American is your weak link, that's saying something about your team.
So there you have it ... OSU can be excited that it's the squad I'm picking to win it all.
Or should the Cowboys be nervous?