Owings Mills, Md.
Georgia’s dominance at the NCAA Division I Men’s Championship might best be summed up by the biggest dilemma coach Chris Haack faced all week: Which of his team’s five 70s in the final round would he throw out?
The odds of all five Bulldogs coming up with the same even-par score June 4 at Caves Valley Golf Club had to be astronomically high, but certainly no more so than Haack’s team carving so decisively through a field that included No. 1 Oklahoma State and fellow top-5 powers Georgia Tech, UNLV and New Mexico.
In winning its second NCAA men’s title, Georgia finished with a 15-over 1,135 total, 11 shots ahead of rival Georgia Tech, which finished second for the third time in six years. Rounding out the top five were Washington (1,153), BYU (1,154, including a final-round-best 275) and New Mexico (1,158).
Beginning with an opening blitz of 6-under-par 274 all the way through their amazingly symmetrical final-round 280, the Bulldogs displayed a consistency they had been searching for all season. Despite being No. 2 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings entering the NCAAs, Georgia hadn’t won a tournament this spring.
“We had a good year and played steady, but only had two wins and both those were in the fall,” Haack said. “I kept thinking that sometime all five of them were going to put it all together at the same time. And that’s what they did this week on a very difficult golf course. Both NCAA titles have been special, but this one will always stand out because it was a more dominating performance and every player on the team contributed.”
How balanced was the Bulldogs’ attack? All five players finished in the top 21 (Brendon Todd, T-7; Kevin Kisner and Chris Kirk, T-13; Richard Scott, T-16; and David Denham, T-21). And consider this: Over the four tournament rounds, which used the best four of five scoring format, Georgia’s “throw out” scores were 72, 74, 76 and 70.
“We all knew we had a very solid team,” Kisner said. “It was just a matter of all of us playing well at the same time, and we did that this week. I struggled a lot this spring, but the guys all had faith in me and this was a good time for me to get it back.”
Following a pedestrian spring, Kisner provided Georgia with an emotional spark before and during the first round. The junior’s 5-under 65 was the two-time All-American’s first sub-par effort of the spring, and his timing couldn’t have been better.
“It’s been an exercise in frustration for all of us,” Haack said. “When you have an All-American that is struggling, it wears on everyone.”
Kisner’s spring included no finishes better than 32nd, the worst round of his career – an opening 90 at the SEC Championship – and a lackluster 74.64 stroke average.
“I’ve been feeling down about myself all semester,” Kisner said. “We probably could have won a couple of titles if I’d have played decently.”
Prior to his bogey-free start, Kisner called a players-only team meeting. Haack didn’t know what was discussed during the 15-minute gathering, but he couldn’t have been happier with the results.
“I felt I had to get all the guys together and get on the same page,” said Kisner. “It was time to get serious and the guys knew that.”
In the individual race, Washington junior James Lepp shot a tournament-best 7-under 63, then defeated Pepperdine senior Michael Putnam on the third playoff hole to become the first Canadian to win college golf’s premier championship.
Lepp, from Abbotsford, British Columbia, and Putnam, who closed with a 1-under 69, finished regulation at 4-under 276.
After 54 holes, the field was cut to the low 15 teams, and Georgia Southern managed to grab the final spot at 43-over 883, meaning five of the 15 teams – a third of the field – playing the last round were from the Peach State. (Augusta State and Georgia State also advanced in addition to Georgia, Georgia Tech and Georgia Southern.)
Although the Bulldogs’ second-round 284 was 10 shots higher than their opening round, their 2-under 558 total through 36 holes left them nine strokes in front of Tennessee and 11 better than Georgia Tech.
The real key to the Bulldogs’ victory, however, may have come in Round 3. On a rainy, miserable day when only seven teams were able to break 300, Georgia shot a third-round 297 and maintained its nine-stroke edge while other contenders were falling away. And the Bulldogs never came close to losing their stronghold at the top of the leaderboard on the final day. They extended their margin over Tech to 13 shots early, and the lead never got below double digits on the final nine.
It was a much different path to victory than the Bulldogs’ 1999 title at Hazeltine Golf Club in Minnesota, but just as effective – and a lot easier on Haack. Well, sort of.
“The first time (at Hazeltine), I was a little surprised because we started the final round five shots behind a very good Oklahoma State team,” said Haack. “This one was pretty intense because I had to sleep on the lead. Believe me, I didn’t sleep much last night.”
Had Haack known those five 70s were coming, he wouldn’t have missed a wink.