Match play upstages individual NCAA title
I wanted to allow some time before I made any comments on the second year of the re-formatted NCAA Championship. It’s been almost one month since Augusta State won three matches to win the national title at The Honors Course in Ooltewah, Tenn.
Two national championships now have employed match play to decide the national champion. The same team – Oklahoma State – emerged both years as the favorite and the 54-hole stroke-play leader, and most likely would have won a title if the old format were still in place. Instead, the champion was No. 7 seed Texas A&M in 2009 and No. 6 seed Augusta State last month.
I have been called a match-play hater, and have been one of the biggest critics of this chosen style of play, but my reasoning is not that I dislike match play. It’s quite simple: College golf is played entirely differently throughout the season, with stroke play being the dominant format. Then, when the biggest event of the year arrives, the format is changed.
The thing that disturbed me the most about this came from talking with players at the 2009 NCAA Championship at Inverness Club. One player said he had never played a match-play event in his golf career. And now, at the NCAA Championship, he would play this way.
Flashback to the NCAAs
The format change for deciding the championship does not sit well with me, and I am not alone. What has slowly diminished in this re-designed championship is the individual title. College golf has done a brilliant job of masking what is an individual sport and manufacturing a team game out of it. I am OK with that, but the individual championship has been lost in the rough (and our five-minute search is up).
Last year, North Carolina State’s Matt Hill had what was arguably one of the best seasons in college golf history. He capped it with a victory at the Inverness Club, only to have it take a backseat to the race for the final spots on the match-play bracket. The same thing happened again this year when Illinois’ Scott Langley won the individual title, finishing on the ninth hole while the attention was directed more toward a playoff that eventually would take place for the No. 8 seed.
I will admit that once the eight-team bracket is set, the atmosphere changes and the excitement of being there is much greater. You certainly can see the players and coaches truly enjoy that sort of competition. Why wouldn’t they? It opens the door for many more teams to have a shot at winning.
Some of the biggest reasons for the change had to do with making the event more exciting in order to draw more fans to the college game, and the possibility of the championship being televised. As for bringing more fans to the game? That’s not happening. It’s college golf, and it is what it is. The majority of parents who try not to miss an event for four years – the ones who live on Golfweek.com’s college section and are glued to Golfstat.com watching live scoring – disappear once their child is finished with college golf.
And sure, a few dozen folks from Augusta, Ga., who probably wouldn’t have otherwise attended the championship, made the four-hour drive to watch the Jaguars take on Oklahoma State in the championship match. Overall, however, the number of new fans following the game is minuscule.
What does all of this mean moving forward? I am not exactly sure.
It does appear that some big-time venues now want to host the national championship. The NCAA recently announced that Riviera Country Club and Atlanta Athletic Club will play host to future championships. Is that a result of the format change? I don’t know, but it definitely will add to the event’s appeal.
As for any other significant changes, I have been told there won’t be any in the near future. However, I have heard that there still is a desire to create a 16-team match-play bracket instead of the current eight-team bracket. I still like the idea of 72 holes of stroke play and then the top four teams advancing to the Final Fore (I can’t take credit for that clever title - that belongs to a pair of SIDs).
As for the chances of seeing college golf on television? There is some talk that golf could benefit from the new 14-year deal that the NCAA reached with CBS Sports and Turner Broadcasting in April regarding the men’s basketball tournament. I won’t get too excited for that just yet. After all, the match-play portion of this year’s championship could not even find a spot on the Internet.
Because this format will be around for at least the next few years, I beg the NCAA Golf Committee to change one thing: Please allow coaches to set their lineups. You could not ask for a way to get more people talking about the championship than this. To actually have a coach matching a player with the opposing coach’s selection would add an element to college golf we have not seen, and create interest like nothing else.
All of that being said, my thoughts on the future of this re-designed championship ... I can’t wait to get to Karsten Creek next May!