Today on Wildman’s Corner, I caught up with Michigan coach Andrew Sapp. This week the Wolverines and the rest of the Big Ten conference are headed to Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., to play in the Big Ten Match Play. In 2009, at Inverness, the Wolverines made it all the way to the Final Four, but fell just short in their national semifinal match against Texas A&M. Coach Sapp credits the Big Ten Match Play for getting his team prepared for that week at NCAAs.
Question: Michigan plays a pretty tough schedule throughout the year. Where would you rank the Big Ten Match Play on your schedule?
Answer: I think it’s obvious the scale of strength this tournament has. Currently our conference has seven of the top 35 teams in the country. I think I would put this right behind Puerto Rico and Southern Cal’s tournament as our biggest event of the year. This tournament, though, is so much more than just a tournament; it’s about conference pride and defeating some of your school’s biggest rivals, one-on-one.
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Q: Are you surprised that more conferences have not started their own conference match-play tournaments?
A: No, not really. To pull a tournament like this off is real difficult. The first thing that needs to happen is that all the schools need to commit to playing in the event on the dates scheduled. I believe the one nice thing about golf, though, is that I believe we are the only sport that gets to set our own schedule. Our conference doesn’t have a say on who we need or have to play each year. The biggest challenge for all us in the Big Ten is getting everyone to have the common dates available and committing to this tournament. To be honest, I am not surprised at all that other conferences have not done this.
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Q: Would you agree preparing for a match-play tournament is tougher to prepare for than a stroke-play tournament?
A: It is definitely tougher. Think about it: Our first team meeting before the practice round I’ll tell the guys, ‘Guys, each of you need to go out, 1-on-1, and defeat so-and-so.’ At this event scores don’t matter, which is tough to tell a kid. Really, as long as they are beating their opponent, you’ll take whatever they’re shooting as long as they can get us a point. The nice thing about this tournament, though, is it puts a different type of pressure on our guys. Now, when a player is standing over a 4-footer on the 18th green, he won’t think about it being for a 73 as opposed to a 74. Instead, that guy will be thinking how important it is for his team to get the point we need. This is exactly the type of tournament I want my guys in to start the spring because it cranks up the pressure early and motivates them moving forward into the spring.
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Q: Illinois has been the top-ranked team at this event and hasn’t won. You have won this event in the past, as well as reached a national semifinal at Inverness. Is it tough to be a favorite at something like this based on your track record?
A: I think it can be frustrating for some and not as much for others. Illinois was the top seed the first two years and they didn’t win the event. From our standpoint, playing in an event like this helped us out tremendously when we were at Inverness. When the first round of matches were announced, my guys weren’t thinking about anything, really, because the idea or concept wasn’t foreign to us. When we played USC in our first match, my guys had confidence going in and I credit this tournament for getting my guys ready.
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Q: This match-play tournament, though, is it something you even want to do, or would you rather not be bothered with a match-play format?
A: I want to do this event, for sure! I really pushed for this event to happen because I thought it was a great idea. One of the best things about this tournament is that the Big Ten schools are on a neutral playing field with one another. We will all be escaping from cold winters and time off, and the fact that it’s us vs. us makes it a level playing field. Teams will be excited to get to some great weather and play other teams that have had the same amount of time off from tournament play. This is an idea that all the teams are 100 percent behind. For us, it’s a great way to break into the spring season and prepare us for our next event, which will be at the Puerto Rico Classic. The Big Ten Match Play helps us prepare for that immensely.
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Q: What about the rivalries? Can you feel them at Big Ten Match Play?
A: You feel the rivalries, for sure, but they are different than what you see in football. For us, in golf, I would say our main rival is Northwestern because they recruited a lot of our guys, and we recruited a lot of their guys. We have played twice at this event, and we are scheduled to play each other in our first match of the event. Ohio State is also a big rival to us, and we got to face them in match play last year. That rivalry is intense because you know we are two schools that want to beat each other badly. Just because there may not be 100,000 fans roaring during this event doesn’t mean these players don’t feel the effects of the rivalry. You’ll see rivalries at this event, there is no doubt about that.