An NCAA Championship for the ages

Friday, May 29, 2009

TOLEDO, Ohio — The first day of match play at the NCAA Division I Men’s Championship ended without a putt, but not without drama.

There was an ace, a walk-off putt and plenty of fist pumps and tears. Such emotion never would’ve occured under the old format.

After more than 12 hours of match play, Arkansas and Texas A&M were the final teams standing Friday. They’ll face off Saturday in an 18-hole match to decide the NCAA champion.

In a 72-hole stroke-play event, Friday would’ve been a day for top-ranked Oklahoma State to waltz to another national championship. The Cowboys were up 13 shots on the field after the first three rounds.

Now, either the No. 10 team in the country, Arkansas, or 14th-ranked Texas A&M will win. These are good teams. But I think even they’ll admit they’re not the best.

Their presence in the final raises some questions: will the newness of this format eventually wear off? Will players and coaches tire of teams that didn’t even win their conference championships playing for the national title? Or will they embrace the unexpected outcomes in return for the excitement of match play?

Stroke play has produced its fair share of surprise winners, as well. Think Pepperdine in 1997 or Cal in 2004. Even Paul Lawrie won a British Open.

But, at least in the United States, 72 holes of stroke play is the preferred method of crowning a champion.

Stroke play doesn’t yield dramatic results when it comes to college golf, though. At most NCAA Championships, only a few teams enter the final round with a chance to win. Most players putt out on No. 18 with nothing more at stake than a higher spot in the middle of the leaderboard.

Instead, all eight teams entered Friday’s play with a chance to win a national championship. And instead of just waiting by the 18th green for teammates to finish, players roamed the course in packs, hooting and hollering for big shots. Purdue head coach Devon Brouse, Louisville’s Mark Crabtree and Marquette’s Tim Grogan were in attendance, even though their teams were not; they just wanted to watch.

Teams that completed their third rounds Friday morning also hung around, even though many got up at 5:30 a.m. to start play by 7. Casey Martin and his Oregon team stayed for the afternoon play; most college kids who get up before daylight need a nap at noon.

But it was worth fighting fatigue to witness this. It was like the final day of the Ryder Cup, played on a smaller scale, but multiple times throughout the day.

For those of us in attendance, it was a day unlike any other in college golf. And tomorrow could bring even more drama, as college golf’s biggest prize is on the line.

But the teams sitting at home Saturday, whose only updates will come via the Internet, won’t feel the tension in the air or see the excitement. Neither will the majority of the college golf community, which isn’t at Inverness.

They'll only see the surprise winners, and wonder if this is how a national championship should be decided.

Oklahoma State will wonder what would’ve happened if the draw turned out differently, or if there’d been no match play at all.

But, Oklahoma State head coach Mike McGraw came out in support of the format after his team was beat by Brian Harman's 8-foot birdie putt.

Georgia finished stroke play tied for seventh. If the Bulldogs had better throw-out scores, they’d have been the seventh seed, and may not have seen Oklahoma State until the final.

The Bulldogs beat Arkansas in the SEC Championship, but the Razorbacks were the better team in match play.

Friday ended with Texas A&M senior Matt van Zandt being conceded a 20-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole to defeat Michigan’s Bill Rankin, 1 up, in the second-to-last match of the day.

In the other semifinal, Arkansas won easily over a Georgia team that may have been emotionally spent from a thrilling win over Oklahoma State. The Razorbacks were helped by an ace, an eagle and a 50-foot birdie putt, all from David Lingmerth, who beat Georgia’s Hudson Swafford, 3 and 2.

Nothing could compare to the morning, though.

Harman birdied Nos. 16-18 to beat Rickie Fowler, 1 up, and send Oklahoma State home in the first round. Then there was Michigan’s Lion Kim, who almost holed out a hybrid shot from 212 yards to close out Matthew Giles and USC.

Michigan, the local favorite, had a chance to advance to the final. The Wolverines were all square as the final two matches got to the 18th tee, needing to win both to advance. Michigan’s campus is less than an hour from Inverness.

Will the new championship last longer than a drive to Ann Arbor? readers: We value your input and welcome your comments, but please be respectful in this forum.