PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. – For four years, I have thoroughly enjoyed the final week of the men’s college golf season, despite the week seemingly lasting longer than the NBA Playoffs.
After what happened today at Riviera Country Club, I can’t wait until next year.
When it was first announced that match play was the new format, I felt it was almost certain we would have many moments of firecrackers not popping. Surely, we would have many closeouts midway through the back nine and no drama. That has not been the case, and I think I have figured out why.
Similar to the way water eventually finds its level, scores tend to gravitate to a 3-2 final. A close margin of victory sets the stage for excitement. And with only five matches and three points needed to win, a close score is virtually assured.
By the time two teams get to the final match, they have played 54 holes of stroke-play qualifying and finished among the top eight. They have won two previous matches, and by Sunday they have to be somewhat evenly matched.
It doesn’t get any more even than what we saw Sunday: The best team from the fall season in Texas and the best team from the spring season in Alabama. It was No. 1 vs. No. 2. You could not write the script any better than this. And toss in the fact that the coaches gave us a Justin Thomas-Jordan Spieth duel.
In the previous three championships using this format, only once did we have a No. 1 or No. 2 team reaching the final match. Oklahoma State did it two years ago at The Honors Course in Ooltewah, Tenn., as the top-ranked team and eventually lost to Augusta State.
Sunday’s match was slow out of the gate. And the questions of will we have that Bronson Burgoon, Carter Newman or Mitch Krywulycz moment definitely entered my head.
Alabama’s Hunter Hamrick built a 6-up lead after nine holes and went on to win easily by a 6-and-5 score to put Alabama on the board first. And with Texas leading three matches at that moment, it appeared the first match on the course pitting Alabama’s Bobby Wyatt against Texas’ Toni Hakula was going to decide it.
This is where we saw our first moment. With the match all-square and the players on Riviera’s memorable 18th green, Hakula was assured a tap-in par when Wyatt rolled his birdie chip into the cup, causing a mini Roll Tide eruption from the 18th green. Alabama now had two points.
And a scene with which I have grown familiar on the final day of the NCAA Championship: People were running.
Just moments later, another moment and roar: Jordan Spieth holed out for eagle on the par-4 15th hole.
Texas was now in control. Spieth would win, and Cody Gribble was about to put point No. 2 on the board. Quick, let’s run again to the Cory Whitsett-Dylan Frittelli match.
Whitsett makes birdie on 17 for to square his match against Frittelli. The moments were adding up, and it seemed certain another was on the way.
Frittelli would roll in a 30-footer for birdie that sent the more dominant burnt-orange crowd into a roar and celebration on the 18th green.
The moments from the last four championships have shelf life.
Is match play the best way to determine a national champion? No, not when you play stroke play all season long. Sure, this season we got 1 vs. 2, and it worked beautifully. However, that has not always been the case. But, I say “Who cares?”
There is no question in my mind that moments like we saw today make these tournaments even more exciting.