BRADENTON, Fla. – The top three players in the Arkansas lineup could do nothing but stand by Tuesday as a sixth tournament title lay in the hands of two freshmen.
Sophomore Sebastian Cappelen had won a fourth victory at Concession Golf Club earlier in the day to go undefeated at the Callaway Match Play Championship, and senior Ethan Tracy had suffered a disappointing loss. Austin Cook gave Arkansas a second point, which meant the next Arkansas player to win a match would tip the tournament in the Razorbacks’ favor. (The format mirrored the NCAA Championship, which meant the winning team needed three match victories to claim the title.)
And so freshmen Kolton Crawford and Thomas Sorensen played three extra holes against their Duke opponents after both matches ended all square. The Razorbacks’ upperclassmen stood by quietly, and by the time the matches reached the par-4 fifth, the 21st hole of the day, they watched as Duke’s Yaroslav Merkulov dumped his approach into the water. Crawford’s conceded birdie meant the end of Sorensen’s match, and by a 3-1-1 score, Arkansas claimed yet another victory.
Call it a lesson in versatility – inside the Arkansas team ranks but in the grander scheme, too. Ranked No. 10 by Golfweek, Arkansas already had won five times this season. All were stroke-play tournaments, which makes the Callaway Match Play title an even better addition to the Hogs’ win column. When head coach Brad McMakin talks about the postseason – a popular source of questioning during the toughest match-play event outside of the national championship – there’s always a tagline.
”If we’re fortunate enough to get to the eight … or even get to NCAAs.”
Superstition aside, if there were doubts about Arkansas’ talent or depth before this week, they should be quieted after this latest victory.
McMakin counts focus and preparation among his team’s strengths. He watched his players excel on a high-risk, high-reward golf course, and expressed relief that this wasn’t a stroke-play event.
“You can be in the middle of the fairway and have a 100-yard shot and make an 8,” he said of Concession. “You’re never out of the hole, and that’s what makes it exciting.”
The Razorbacks are used to a course that bites back. After all, back home they play the equally challenging Blessings Golf Club almost daily. Difficult fits them, especially Cappelen, a player whom McMakin says likes head-to-head showdowns.
Cappelen will go for broke on a hole, and in match play, can stomach a loss because of a big number and move on. The sophomore has had a lot of experience with that format on the Danish National Team, and so has teammate Sorensen – a fellow Danish team member.
“I love the match-play format,” Cappelen said. “It’s kind of more relaxing – just take it hole by hole, and if you mess up, it doesn’t really matter. You have a bunch of holes to make it up.”
Sorensen and Crawford, meanwhile, amount to a bright future for Arkansas.
“It’s nice to see them go through the process and obviously handle it really good,” McMakin said. “They were neck and neck all day, and they hung in there the whole day.”
Coming down the stretch, Duke head coach Jamie Green wasn’t sure where to look. “It was exciting; it was confusing. There was all sorts of stuff going on out there,” he said. Still, it was a chance to see where the talent lies in match-play golf. The Blue Devils belong in that group.
Junior Tim Gornik proved his nerve by sinking a 35-foot putt in sudden-death to help get Duke to the final, then found himself in another playoff Tuesday that was cut short by teammate Merkulov’s loss. Both kept their matches close through 18 holes. Julian Suri pulled off a big win against Tracy, and Austin Cody’s final-round loss was his first of the week.
“Arkansas, they’re very good; there’s no doubt about it,” Green said. “Every single one of their players played well today. I feel really good about the play that our guys had, and even the losses.”