In its wildest dreams at the start of the week, if the NCAA Golf Committee could have written its own Hollywood script for this year’s NCAA Division I Men’s Championship at Riviera Country Club, it would have no doubt included these scenes:
• The nation’s No. 1 and No. 2 teams meeting in the final match, as well as the nation’s top two ranked individuals squaring off against each other in one of the five head-to-head matches.
• One team falling behind early, then rallying in the final three matches to keep its title hopes alive.
• The national title going down to the final twosome on the course, ending when a senior All-American sinks a long birdie putt on the 18th hole to complete the comeback and win the championship for his team.
Heading into this year’s NCAA finals just a short drive from Hollywood, that scenario seemed like a farfetched plot, especially considering that in the three previous NCAA finals using the match-play format for the final eight teams, Nos. 1 and 2 never had met.
But that is exactly what happened June 3 at this famed L.A. course.
There was no David vs. Goliath matchup this year. This was more a clash of the titans, as top-ranked Texas and No. 2 Alabama faced off with a national championship at stake.
When Dylan Frittelli, the lone senior in the Texas lineup, finally drained a 30-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole to end a tight, tense afternoon, it was the Longhorns who erupted in celebration.
The 3-2 victory gave Texas its first NCAA men’s golf title since it won back-to-back crowns in 1971-72 behind Ben Crenshaw and Tom Kite.
“Unbelievable,” said Texas coach John Fields, in his 15th season with the Longhorns. “I’ve been out here (coaching) for 25 years. It’s what everyone wants to do, and it’s so special when you can do it because it’s something that’s so hard.
“It’s just wonderful all the way around,” Fields said as he received hugs from his wife and two children. “(Our players) were under a lot of pressure all season long, and especially this week coming in No. 1. But these guys handled it, and I’m just so proud of each of them.”
It marked Texas’ eighth victory of the season to go with three runner-up finishes it had leading into the NCAA finals.
For Alabama coach Jay Seawell, it was an unfulfilling final scene.
“Disappointed? Of course,” said Seawell, whose team won six times this season, all in the spring. “I might never quit hurting. But it was one heck of a battle out there, and we have no reason to hang our heads.
“You had No. 1 against No. 2, and it came down to a very thrilling ending. So if you look at the overall picture, this has been great for college golf. I just wish it could have ended differently.”
Alabama took the early lead when, in the first match out, Bobby Wyatt eagled the par-5 17th, then chipped in from 35 feet for birdie at 18 for a dramatic 1-up victory over Toni Hakula.
Shortly thereafter, the Tide went up 2-0 when Hunter Hamrick, who won the opening hole with an eagle and then captured four consecutive holes (Nos. 6-9), rolled past Julio Vegas, 6 and 5, in the final pairing.
But the Longhorns were up in the three matches still on the course, and they made the most of the middle of their lineup. Cody Gribble was 2 up at the turn and made it stand to put the first Texas point on the board, beating Alabama’s Scott Strohmeyer, 2 and 1.
In the other 1 vs. 2 battle, second-ranked Longhorn Jordan Spieth tied the overall match at 2-2 by defeating top-ranked Justin Thomas, 3 and 2. Spieth was 3 up through 10 holes before Thomas finally won his first hole at No. 11. Thomas cut the margin to one hole by winning the 13th, but Spieth answered by winning 14 with a birdie, then holing out from the fairway for eagle to win 15.
That set the stage for the showdown between Frittelli and Cory Whitsett, a match that went back and forth all day. Frittelli won the ninth hole to go 1 up, but Whitsett won Nos. 10 and 12 to take the lead. Frittelli again went ahead by winning 15 with a birdie and 16 with a par, only to watch Whitsett sink a 10-foot birdie putt on 17 to square the match.
After Whitsett hit his approach shot into the kikuyu grass left of the 18th green, Frittelli knocked his shot safely onto the putting surface, 30 feet from the hole. Whitsett then undercut his wedge shot attempt, moving his ball only an inch or so. He then chipped onto the green to about 3 feet.
After Frittelli and Texas assistant coach Ryan Murphy sized up the putt, the first-team All-American and South Africa native ran it home dead center.
“When the ball was about 2 feet from the hole, I looked away,” Frittelli said. “I knew it was in, and I just wanted to get to my teammates as soon as possible.”
His Texas teammates exploded onto the green and smothered their departing senior.
“Amazed. Shocked. Those are the words that quickly come to mind,”
Frittelli said amid the pandemonium. “I couldn’t have dreamt up something like this. To end my college career with a putt like that for us to win the national championship is just magical.”
Said Murphy, who walked every step with Frittelli in the final, “I’m just so happy for him. He is so special.
“To have him make that putt to win it, you couldn’t have drawn it up any better.”
Even if you’re a Hollywood screen writer.