Balicki: Van Zandt anchors Aggies

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TOLEDO, Ohio — Texas A&M was not short on heroes as it traveled its road to the first NCAA golf championship in school history.

Any one of the five Aggies in the lineup this week at Inverness Club can qualify for that role.

There was sophomore Conrad Shindler, who led the team by tying for 13th in the 54-hole stroke-play portion of the championship. Shindler’s performance enabled the Aggies to tie for seventh and gain one of the precious eight spots in match play.

There was sophomore John Hurley – the big bomber – who won two matches and halved another to keep A&M moving through the match-play bracket.

There was junior Andrea Pavan, who struggled in stroke play (T-60) and lost his first-round match, but bounced back and dominated his opponents in the semifinals (8 and 7) and championship match (7 and 6).

And of course there was senior Bronson Burgoon who has been carrying the Aggies much of the year and didn’t stop this week. After tying for 18th in stroke play, Burgoon went on to win all three of his matches.

His final match against Arkansas senior Andrew Landry will no doubt become an all-time classic. He was 4 up with five holes to play, but Landry won the next four holes to square the match going to the 18th hole. The 18th is infamous as the site of Bob Tway’s hole-out from a greenside bunker to win the 1986 PGA Championship.

As far as historic Inverness is concerned, Burgoon’s final approach shot ranks right up there with Tway. Burgoon hit a gap wedge from the right rough, 125 yards out. The ball landed right of the pin and trickled to within a couple of inches from the hole for a conceded birdie.

Indeed, the Aggies had their share of heroes. But maybe the biggest one of all was the guy who didn’t have the best week.

That would be senior Matt Van Zandt. He epitomized what team golf is all about and most of all, how important a role the No. 5 man can be.

Consider this: In stroke play, Van Zandt was Texas A&M’s throw-out score each round as he tied for 120th in the 156-player field.

In match play, his first match was deemed halved since it was still in progress and the Aggies already had clinched the three points necessary for a win. He won his semifinal match, then lost his match in the final.

One might look at his performance as non-productive for the week. In my opinion, Van Zandt efforts very well might be the most crucial in allowing the Aggies to take the championship trophy back home to College Station, Texas.

When stroke play was completed, Texas A&M was tied with Georgia for the seventh spot. A tie-breaker was needed to see which team would gain the No. 7 seed and which team would be the No. 8 seed for match play. That tie-breaker was the cumulative fifth-man score over the three rounds of stroke play.

Van Zandt’s 16-over 229 was four strokes better than Georgia’s three throw-out numbers, allowing A&M to be seeded seventh.

How big was that? It meant the Aggies would not have to face No. 1 seed and the nation’s top-ranked team – Oklahoma State – in the opening round.

Does that mean Texas A&M had no chance if they played Oklahoma State? Not quite, but one would have to believe it boosted A&M’s chances at moving through to the match-play bracket.

And then, of course, there was that win in the semifinals. His par on the final hole for a 1-up victory over Michigan’s Bill Rankin was the clinching point that sent the Aggies into the championship match.

“This has been story book, not only for me but for the entire team,” Van Zandt said shortly after the Aggies scored a 3-and-2 victory over Arkansas to secure the title. “This is what you dream of. And to have me, a senior, close it out yesterday and Bronson, our other senior, to close it out today, is about as good as it can get.

“I never got down one bit at any time this week,” Van Zandt said. “I knew I had a strong team behind me. The thing about college golf is you can make contributions that are way bigger than just a score.”

Van Zandt contributed in his final collegiate tournament.

And because of that, Texas A&M is leaving Toledo with college golf’s biggest prize.

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