By Rex Hoggard
Owings Mills, Md.
Following a day when Caves Valley resembled Carnoustie, a pair of mudders from the Pacific Northwest wrapped up a seasonlong rivalry with a steal-the-show shootout at the NCAA Division I Men’s Championship.
James Lepp of Washington and Pepperdine’s Michael Putnam weathered a third round that felt a lot more like October in Seattle than June in Baltimore with rounds of 76 and 73, respectively. On the eve of the final 18 holes, Putnam led by one shot over Georgia Tech’s Roberto Castro and Major Manning of Augusta State and had a six-shot cushion over Lepp.
“I like it (rain). I play a lot of golf in the rain being from the Northwest,” said Putnam, a Tacoma, Wash., native who was playing the NCAA as an individual. “I feel like I have an advantage over everybody else, especially California guys.”
Seems Lepp – a junior from Abbotsford, British Columbia who edged Putnam in a playoff – is equally comfortable, rain or shine. As Friday’s drizzle gave way to shards of sunshine for Saturday’s final round, Lepp scorched the Caves Valley layout with a final-round 63 to match Putnam at 4-under 276 and force extra holes.
“I said to James before the final round, ‘You can still win.’ And he said, ‘I’m gonna,’ ” said Washington coach Matt Thurmond.
Lepp followed his seven-birdie, one-bogey final round – an NCAA Championship single-round record and a par-70 course record for Caves Valley, which normally plays to a par of 71 – with an equally-composed performance in overtime. After matching pars on the first two playoff holes, Nos. 18 and 9, Lepp two-putted from 40 feet on the 18th, and Putnam three-putted from a similar distance.
The victory was just Lepp’s second since joining the Huskies – his first since the Duck Invitational in March, where he shared medalist honors with Putnam – and a long-awaited payoff for a move that cost him a year of college competition.
Lepp played his first two years of college golf at Illinois, but grew homesick in Champaign and requested a transfer to Washington after his sophomore season. Illinois officials balked, denying Lepp a release and forcing him to sit out the 2003-04 season.
“There was a time (in Illinois) that I didn’t like being there. So I thought I needed to make a change,” said Lepp, who shot 70-67-76 the first three rounds. “The hardest part of sitting out was that we had a really good team with Brock Mackenzie. Just think about what we could have done last year.”
Without Lepp last year, the Huskies tied for sixth at NCAAs. Thanks to the soft-spoken Canadian’s final-round heroics, Washington jumped into third at Caves Valley for its best finish at nationals.
“That was just a good year off for him,” Thurmond said. “He got himself into condition and spent a lot of time at home. He’s a different kid now.”
Following his victory in the Maryland countryside, he’ll likely be a different player.