WINDERMERE, Fla. – When you’re at Tiger’s Place, might as well play Tiger-like.
Especially if he’s watching.
With Oklahoma State treading water on the back nine Tuesday during the final round of the Isleworth Collegiate Invitational, Peter Uihlein took over. The sophomore birdied his final two holes with putts from inside 6 feet to help the top-ranked Cowboys win their second consecutive event.
On a muggy, windy day at Isleworth Golf & Country Club, Oklahoma State posted a 13-over 301 in the final round to finish at 17-over 881, five shots ahead of 11th-ranked Florida, which closed with 302. Sixth-ranked Stanford (299) finished third at 888.
“That was tight,” Uihlein said. “He was right there.”
“He,” of course, being Isleworth resident and former Stanford Cardinal Tiger Woods, who followed the final three groups – OSU, UF and Stanford – in a golf cart (clubs strapped to the back) for nearly three hours over the final nine holes. With Woods huddled alongside the Cardinal and a gallery that exceeded 200 people next to the 18th green, Uihlein, playing in the final group, split the fairway on the 477-yard par-4 18th, then hit an 8-iron to 6 feet below the hole. Minutes later, he rolled in the birdie putt. Woods nodded, shook hands with Stanford coach Conrad Ray, his former teammate, then rode off.
Uihlein, who’s been known to drop Tigeresque fist pumps from time to time, simply tipped his hat and waved to the crowd.
“I totally saw him,” said Uihlein, who tied for third individually after closing with a 3-over 75. He couldn’t stop beaming, knowing that Woods stuck around to watch the last putt drop. “But I didn’t say hello.”
Oklahoma State nearly said goodbye to the rest of the field on the front nine Tuesday morning. Florida, which started the final round four shots behind the Cowboys, got off to a sluggish front nine, making 14 bogeys and three double bogeys as a team as OSU built a double-digit lead. But the Gators rallied on the back nine. Led by Phillip Choi, who made four birdies in a six-hole stretch, Florida pulled even with Oklahoma State with three holes to play. However, the momentum didn’t last. Choi three-putted for double bogey on No. 18 to shoot 75. Tim McKenney bogeyed his last hole for a 79. Andres Echavarria had 75, and Robbie Wright shot 81.
“I knew it was getting close,” said Florida senior Tyson Alexander, who tied for seventh after a round of 73. “I definitely felt it getting more tense. But (Oklahoma State) is the best team in the country. We gave them a shot. Based on the rankings, we’re not supposed to finish second here. This is the best field of the fall. It says we’re getting better.”
Teams will need to get better to keep up with Oklahoma State. Even after losing one of program’s best players, All-American Rickie Fowler, who turned pro after the Walker Cup and nearly won a PGA Tour event on Sunday, the Cowboys haven’t shown any signs of slowing down. They finished two shots behind Arizona State at the season-opening Olympia Fields/Fighting Illini Invitational Sept. 20, then won the Ping/Golfweek Invitational a week later by 22 shots.
The team’s success has been delivered by committee. Senior Trent Whitekiller, who tied for 22nd at Isleworth, earned co-medalist honors at Olympia Fields. At the Ping/Golfweek Invitational, Uihlein, sophomore Morgan Hoffmann and Whitekiller finished 1-2-3. At Isleworth, junior Kevin Tway shot 70-76 to tie for seventh.
“People graduate, they turn pro,” Cowboys coach Mike McGraw said. “You have to be ready to step up. These guys understand that. When you get your opportunity, you seize that.”
Alabama sophomore Bud Cauley’s big opportunity came Tuesday morning when was handed a pin sheet. With a majority of the hole locations cut near the edges of Isleworth’s large, sloping greens, Cauley – one of the nation’s best ballstrikers – took advantage. He spread out three bogeys and three birdies in a closing 72 to win the individual title at 5-under 211. Stanford junior Sihwan Kim made four back-nine birdies in a 68 and finished one shot back.
At the U.S. Collegiate last April, Cauley earned co-medalist honors with UCLA’s Erik Flores.
“To win outright is so much sweeter,” said Cauley, who went 69-70-72 at the 7,544-yard track. “It was as tough as it gets out there.”
After receiving their trophies, the Cowboys kicked back in Isleworth’s palatial clubhouse, piling their plates with tacos and enchiladas. The team sat together at a small table in the corner of the clubhouse’s “game room.” A golf simulator was just feet away. The pool table, pop-a-shot basketball and shuffle puck was across the room. Bets were already being made for a contest following lunch.
“We just all get along. We enjoy each other’s company,” Uihlein said. “When you have that, it’s easier to play. You’re more comfortable with everybody.”
And now, as it turns out, more comfortable with Tiger watching, too.