NEW HAVEN, Conn. – Early Saturday afternoon at The Course at Yale, a tournament volunteer sat in a chair behind the ninth green, almost boasting as he warned a few visiting spectators to the danger that lurked before them.
“A very sadistic person designed this hole,” he said, chuckling and shaking his head, eerily foreshadowing the heartbreaking conclusion to this action-packed NCAA East Regional.
The sight of South Carolina’s Wesley Bryan hours later, walking alone through the parking lot and toward the team van, his head down and face expressionless, was merciless.
Hearing Gamecocks coach Bill McDonald say that “the rest of my life I’m going to second-guess myself about this whole deal,” might have been worse.
When Bryan, a sophomore, stepped to the tee at the par-3 ninth about a half hour earlier, the day could have already been considered unbelievable. After starting the day on No. 10, Bryan was 6 under through 17 holes, having made six birdies and 11 pars. He had not only helped his team leap past five teams from 10th place into fifth, the final qualifying spot for the NCAA Championship, but also had a one-shot lead in the individual race.
About an hour earlier, Virginia senior Kyle Stough walked toward the Yale clubhouse wondering if his college career was over. Stough birdied four of his last six holes to shoot even-par 70 and help his team to a 3-over 843 total, which at that point didn’t seem good enough.
“Hopefully it’s enough,” Stough said. “But I can’t watch. I’m going inside.”
McDonald was with Bryan on the ninth tee, a highly-elevated tee box, staring down at what has to be one of golf’s more daunting greens – a putting surface 69 yards deep, with a large, deep gully running through the middle that makes it look more like two separate targets, guarded by both bunkers and swamp.
Saturday’s distance was listed at 188 yards, all carry, into the wind, with the hole location on the front right. Bryan and McDonald debated between 5- and 6-iron. They went with the 6.
“I wanted to keep him aggressive,” McDonald said. “It’s the kind of hole where I felt like even with a lead, or a cushion like we had, I didn’t feel comfortable telling him to play safe and not make an aggressive swing.”
Bryan, No. 79 in the Golfweek/Sagarin Rankings, didn’t catch it solid and it came up a bit short, landing in a grassier part of the hazard.
When Bryan saw the ball, the first thing he said to McDonald was, “I’m definitely hitting this.”
“I kind of looked at it, too, like, Wesley’s one of the best wedge players I’ve ever seen,” said McDonald. “If he tells me he can get it out…”
Bryan’s second shot landed almost in the same place as it started.
So he tried again. His third shot caught a piece of stone in the hazard and bounced backwards into the water, sinking his chances at the individual title.
The heads of his teammates standing behind the green almost sank in unison.
Bryan was forced to walk back around the pond, to a drop area, about 145 yards from the stick. He dropped four, needing to get up-and-down to put the Gamecocks into a playoff with Virginia.
Instead, Bryan came up short again, finding the same hazard that had gotten him into this mess.
That he successfully hit his sixth shot from the hazard onto the green was only a case of tragic irony.
Bryan three-putted for a nine, dropping to even-par 70 for the day and into a tie for sixth place with his brother, senior George Bryan IV, at 3-under 207.
A double-bogey 5 would have sent South Carolina to the national championship. The nine left them at 6-over 846, only good enough for eighth.
“A horrific ending to what was a great day, a great comeback,” said McDonald, who quite honorably put the blame on himself. He said he should have let Bryan hit 5-iron to avoid the water altogether. He said he shouldn’t have let him hit from the hazard the first time.
“I think it’s a lot more coaching error there, than player error. I did a poor job, a very poor job. I could have steered Wesley two times in a better direction, and I didn’t do it.”
Word of Bryan’s finish circulated quickly, announced somewhat officially by the sound of slapping hands and patting backs by Virginia players, who thought a poor 2-over finish at the par-5 18th hole had knocked them out.
Everywhere you looked, there was shock.
“Has anything like that ever happened in college golf?” one player asked.
McDonald, not really knowing what to do with himself, walked over toward the Virginia players and coaches surrounding the team van and said, “Congratulations, guys.”
No one knew what to say.