The good news for California is it won the 54-hole stroke-play qualifying portion Thursday and landed the No. 1 seed going into the eight-team match-play bracket that will determine this year’s NCAA champion.
The bad news for the Bears is they won the stroke-play qualifying, and no team in past four years has been medalist then gone on to win the national title.
Cal just might become the first to accomplish the feat. And why not? In what already is an historic season, it only seems appropriate the Bears finish it off in historic fashion.
With a final round 5-under-par 275, the Bears, No. 1 in the Golfweek/Sagarin Rankings since mid-September, finished at 16-under 824. Cal was six shots clear of Georgia Tech, the host team, which closed with a 2-over 282.
Alabama, ranked No. 2 by Golfweek, Texas, No. 3 and the defending NCAA champions, tied for third at 7-under 833. Illinois, No. 22, secured the fifth spot at 5-under 835.
Then things got really interesting – and intense – as a host of teams battled all day long for one of those final three positions in the Elite 8. Some 10 teams were in the chase at one point or another.
When all was settled, four teams tied for sixth at 2-over 842: New Mexico, UNLV, Texas A&M and Arizona State, the first-round leader. They went into a playoff for those final three spots.
But there was plenty of controversy leading up to the playoff.
The threesome of Texas A&M’s Ty Dunlap, UCF’s Greg Eason and Arizona State’s Jon Rahm were cited for two bad times and faced possible one-stroke penalties for slow play.
After officials, players and coaches met, it was determined that Dunlap and Eason were the culprits and were given the stroke penalty while Rahm was cleared.
That stroke pushed the Aggies out of solo sixth at 1 over and forced them into the playoff. Had Rahm also been given a penalty, it would have sent the Sun Devils packing with a 3-over total.
Talk about wild and crazy finishes – this might be on of the top three in NCAA Championship history.
And talk about costly for Texas A&M. The Aggies became the odd team out in the playoff, where each of the five players played a different hole in a shotgun start and the best four of five scores counted for the team. Texas A&M came in at 1 over while UNLV, New Mexico and Arizona State were even par.
So it’s all set for the start of match play.
- Cal faces Pac-12 rival Arizona State;
- Georgia Tech takes on UNLV, where Tech coach Bruce Heppler once was an assistant;
- Alabama meets New Mexico;
- Texas battles Illinois.
For California, though, all that was a world away. The Bears, who won this title in 2004, were pretty much in complete control from the second round on and especially during the final 18 holes.
“I know we’re only halfway through this, but right now I’m having the same kind of feeling similar to when we won in 2004,” Cal coach Steve Desimone said. “What a tournament so far for us. I’m just so overwhelmed right now.
“We know we have to get ready for match play and we know anything can happen, but we’re certainly going to enjoy this for the next few hours.”
Cal was led by individual champion Max Homa, the lone senior on the squad. He had rounds of 70-65-66 for a 9-under 201 total, three shots better than six players who tied for second at 204.
“I’m so proud of all our guys and how they played these last three days,” Desimone said. “And I can’t say enough about Max Homa. He won the regional and now the NCAA, and I don’t think there’s too many players who can make that claim.”
For Georgia Tech’s Heppler, it was a most satisfying and rewarding three days. Consider this: Last year, the Yellow Jackets failed to advance out of regionals.
“For all five of our guys, it’s their first time (at NCAA finals), so I’m just thrilled,” Heppler said. “I’m really excited for them. We were crushed and devastated last year in Norman (Okla., at regionals) and it’s something we’ve talked about all season long. They did a good job in Tallahassee (fourth at regional) and came out this week and got the job done so far.”
Coach Jay Seawell of Alabama, runner-up to Texas at last year’s NCAA, again enjoyed getting his team back into match play.
“We came out today a little tight and were over par early,” he said. “But we rallied and made seven or eight birdies to get ourselves back right. We’re still getting a chance to play and that’s the main thing. We’re playing in the Elite 8 and that’s where we wanted to be.”
One of the hard-luck stories in the run to match play was Arkansas, which was inside the top eight for most of the day. But the Razorbacks played their last four holes in 5 over; among the counting scores were two bogeys on the final hole and double bogeys on Nos. 15 and 16.
“We played well enough to get there,” Arkansas coach Brad McMakin said. “Unfortunately we had two bogeys on the last hole and two doubles that were really the back breaker. I’m disappointed for the guys and I know they are really down right now. But I’m proud of each one of them. They played well all week.”
There were some surprises as far as not making the Elite 8: No. 4 UCLA finished a disappointing 26th; No. 6 Washington, T-16; and No. 7 TCU, T-19.
Some other teams ranked in the top 15 also disappointed with their finish before heading home: No. 10 Florida State, T-11; No. 11 Oklahoma State, T-14; No. 12 Florida, 25th; and No. 15 Georgia, T-20.