MILTON, Ga. -– It was the heavyweight match-up of the day – the 2012 NCAA medalist, Illinois’ Thomas Pieters, and the 2013 medalist, California’s Max Homa, in the semifinals of the NCAA Championship.
And, as it should be, the match went 20 holes and ultimately decided who would advance to the finals at the Capital City Club’s Crabapple course on Sunday.
Pieters hit his wedge shot, from a side-hill lie, to 10 feet on the 20th hole — the par-4 second — and two-putted for par, while Homa, who had so much adrenaline hitting his approach shot from 75 yards, hit to 60 feet, sent his birdie putt 10 feet past and missed the comebacker -– a deadly three-putt.
Homa had three three-putts in his last 11 holes.
The day started with the two standout players exchanging pars until the sixth hole, when Homa walked in 25-foot birdie putt and Pieters missed his 8-footer.
Homa would add a birdie at No. 8 to go 2 up, extending it on No. 9 with a par to make the turn with a three-hole advantage.
On the 8th, Pieters put his approach shot over the green. When he chipped it back to the flag, it went off the green again, on the other side. Homa just needed a two-putt to take the 2-up lead. On 9, Homa two-putted, as Pieters left his approach shot short and missed a par putt.
The tide changed again on No. 10, this time in favor of the Illini player. Pieters made Homa putt a 3-footer, and Homa missed to cut the lead to two.
Pieters would follow by draining a birdie putt on the par-4 11th to cut Homa’s lead to 1 up.
On No. 12, after putting his tee shot in the left fairway bunker, Pieters got up-and-down for a conceded birdie. Homa could not make his from six feet.
Homa would go onto make a birdie on the par-3 13th, which lead to a quick 1-up lead, but a three-putt followed, and it was back to all square until the 20th hole of the day.
On the first extra hole, it was advantage Pieters as Homa found a fairway bunker off the tee. Homa caught his 9-iron good out of the sand, and landed it just short of the green in the rough – a makeable chip shot.
“I saw it going in, and I knew it was going to be close and I just kind of had that feeling it was going to be short,” he said holding back tears in his post-round interview. “It just didn’t quite have it.”
He came within two inches of rolling in.
“I thought his was going in actually,” Pieters said.
Pieters lived to see another day after his chip shot was left short, too.
When Pieters hit his 10-foot putt on the 20th hole, it didn’t drop. He said he hasn’t made putts out here all week. He probably had seven or eight putts that lipped out for birdie or par on Saturday.
“He’s going to make some putts soon. . . he’s going to keep rolling it,” said Illinois head coach Mike Small. “To be 3 down against a player of that caliber, to just come back, it’s the story of the day.”
Indeed it is. Illinois is playing for a National Championship thanks to Pieters putting Illini nation on his back.
“That’s why I came here. I want to have that chance,” Pieters said. “I wanted to be in this position. I love it.”