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PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. – Freshmen Jordan Spieth of Texas and Justin Thomas of Alabama – Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings – lost their semifinal matches Saturday in the NCAA Championship at Riviera Country Club.
The good news is that both will return to the course Sunday to complete their inaugural collegiate seasons.
That’s because both got a lot of help from their teammates as the Crimson Tide and the Longhorns won their matches in the semis and will square off Sunday for the national championship.
This is what the NCAA Golf Committee has been dreaming about since it changed the format from strictly stroke play to the now stroke/match play combination.
For the first time since the initial change in 2009, the championship will pit the nation’s No. 1 team (Texas) against No. 2 (Alabama).
Even the semifinals were stacked as the Crimson Tide defeated No. 6 California, 3 and 2, while the Longhorns edged No. 7 Oregon by the same score.
“It will be as good as it can get for this season,” Donnie Wagner, the NCAA’s assistant director of championships, said of the final showdown. “It’s what you always hope for, and now we have it.”
And, there’s even an added bonus in the championship match. The fourth twosome out will pit Spieth against Thomas.
For Alabama, it came down to the last match and its senior captain, Hunter Hamrick, who was up against a determined Joel Stalter. Hamrick was 1 up going into 18. His approach shot at the par-4 closing hole was about 20 feet from the pin on the right fringe. Stalter was on the left fringe, about 18 feet.
Hamrick rolled his putt to 6 inches short, and when Stalter’s putt slid past the right edge of the hole, the match was over and the Tide were heading into Sunday.
“I’ve never had a day like today. Isn’t it great?” said Alabama coach Jay Seawell. “Cal is a great golf team, and I told our guys last night to expect a battle from the start. And that’s the way it was: a great match for college golf.
“I think it is so fitting that it came down to our captain, our only senior, to come through, and he did,” said Seawell, who is hoping to add a men’s national golf trophy to go with the one the Tide women took home the previous week in Franklin, Tenn. “I’m just so happy for Hunter. He has meant so much to our program over the years. I couldn’t be happier for him or more proud of him.”
An equally exciting and thrilling Texas-Oregon clash followed and wasn’t finalized until the fourth grouping came to the 18th hole. That’s where Julio Vegas ran home a 12-foot birdie putt to defeat Andrew Vijarro 2 up. It was set up the previous hole, the par-5 17th, where Vegas, who also won No. 16 to square the match, took a 1-up lead when he reached the green in two and two-putted from 30 feet, sinking a 3-footer for birdie.
“I knew Oregon was a tough golf team and knew this match was going to be hard fought from start to finish,” Texas coach John Fields said. “All day long, it was a tough battle. I felt like my guys played some great golf, and they had to.
“I’ve never had a day like this in all my years of coaching,” Fields said. “There was incredible pressure out there. But this is what we’ve been building on and playing for all year: a chance to win a national championship.”
Cal’s Max Homa knocked off Thomas in the day’s first match, winning holes 14 and 16 en route to a 2-and-1 victory.
Cory Whitsett put the Tide on the board when he won holes 13 and 14 and closed out a 3-and-1 victory with a birdie at 17.
Scott Strohmeyer followed and gave Alabama a 2-1 edge with a 1-up win over Pace Johnson, but Cal knotted the match when Michael Kim slipped past Bobby Wyatt 2 and 1.
That set the stage for Hamrick and the final-hole drama.
“I was feeling pressure, for sure,” Hamrick said of playing the last hole. “But there was so much excitement, it almost went beyond the pressure stage. I just love being in that position and where I am right now.”
Texas jumped out to a quick 2-0 lead in its initial two matches. Toni Hakula won the 17th hole and defeated Robbie Ziegler 3 and 1, and Cody Gribble won the 16th and 17th holes for a 2-and-1 decision over Jonathan Woo.
Daniel Miernicki got Oregon on the board with his fantastic finish. Miernicki went 1 up with an eagle on 17 and then drained a 10-foot birdie putt at 18 for a 2-up victory over Dylan Frittelli.
Then it was Vegas who grabbed center stage with his three-hole winning stretch that sealed the deal for the Longhorns.
That made Spieth’s match with Eugene Wong moot. Wong had built a 3-up lead after nine holes. Spieth cut the margin to one with a birdie at 17. But, with the team outcome decided, they didn’t play the 18th hole and Wong came away with a 1-up victory.
So now it’s No. 1 vs. No. 2 – team and individual – come Sunday.
Who could ask for anything better than that?