Those in men’s college golf who wanted 72 holes to decide the individual NCAA champion are pleased, but at what expense for the rest of NCAA Championship week?
The NCAA announced on Monday an increase from 54 to 72 holes to crown the individual champ, as well as a change in the schedule which will see the championship end on a Wednesday rather than a Sunday. The changes will be in play for the 2014 championship at Prairie Dunes Country Club in Hutchinson, Kan.
The Friday start with a Wednesday finish seems to be a non-issue. With next year’s event being televised by Golf Channel beginning on Monday, this means the college event won’t conflict with PGA Tour coverage on the weekend.
However, it’s how the final 18 holes to determine the individual champ will fit into the week’s schedule that is creating concerns among some college coaches. After 54 holes of stroke play (Friday-Sunday) determines the top eight teams that will advance to match play to compete for the team title, the top 40 individual players and ties are now scheduled to play a fourth 18-hole round the following day (Monday) to determine the individual champion. The final two days of competition will be reserved for match play. The quarterfinals and semifinals will be played Tuesday, with the championship match Wednesday.
Why the change to 72 holes to decide the individual champion?
When North Carolina State’s Matt Hill won the NCAA Championship in 2009, the first year the event’s format changed from 72 holes of stroke play to match play to decide the team champion, criticism almost immediately followed. Hill won the title while finishing on the front nine with very little attention. In fact, three of the past five individual national champions have finished on the ninth hole, and two completed play in the morning wave. At that point, with most eyeballs and storylines on the eight teams moving into match play, it was obvious that attention primarily was centered on the team competition at the expense of the individual portion.
Expectations for championship golf are a late-in-the-day finish on the 18th green. In order to accommodate this, the focus would have to be taken away from team scores and placed on individuals. If 72 holes are necessary, the only way to do this – and have the proper attention put on the individual competition – is to eliminate team play for a day.
SMU coach Josh Gregory, who guided Augusta State to back-to-back national championships in 2010 and 2011, knows what the experience of the NCAA Championship week can be.
“It shocked me quite honestly,” Gregory said of the decision for teams to take a day off. “I don’t know that is necessary. It’s not like bad players are winning (the individual title) now.”
Another coach who has twice advanced to match play, including a 2011 finals loss to Augusta State, is Georgia coach Chris Haack.
“Our athletic director cares more about how our team performs than how the individual does,” Haack said. “It disappoints me, and it’s almost like we are taking the emphasis off the team and placing it on the individual. Our sport is more about the team.”
Washington coach Matt Thurmond, who has guided his team to match play three times in five years, has a different view, however.
“I think it is great for the individuals and nice to have that down day,” Thurmond said.
Another thought originally was that playing 72 holes might help the NCAA champion receive an invitation from Augusta National to compete at the Masters. Gregory, for one, doesn’t think that will happen, even with the elimination of the U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship after 2014. That event’s champion has received a Masters invite in recent years.
“I hope it happens, but (it’s) not likely,” Gregory said. “It seems like there is a thought that 72 holes validates the individual championship.”
It’s that individuals-only day that forces the quarterfinals and semifinals to be played in a single day that now becomes a concern. In 2009, the quarterfinal and semifinal matches were played on the same day, but that was changed for the 2010 event, and the format has called for one team match per day since.
Haack remembers that day in 2009 well. His Georgia Bulldogs were the No. 8 seed and knocked off top-seeded and top-ranked Oklahoma State in the morning quarterfinals, before losing in the afternoon to Arkansas.
“It was a big emotional win beating Oklahoma State, and then to have to turn right back around and play that afternoon, our minds were not in it and all of our energy was zapped,” Haack said.
Haack recalls that his team had about one hour to regroup after Brian Harman’s winning putt that defeated OSU’s Rickie Fowler and sent the Bulldogs to the next round.
Gregory, whose teams at Augusta State went a combined 6-0 in match play in 2010 and ’11, could not imagine what it would have been like to have to tee it up shortly after a quarterfinal victory.
“To have to play two in one day, there is way too much emotion involved,” he said. “You need time to enjoy, celebrate and relax and get ready for the next day.”
Thurmond, however, points out that 36 holes in a day is a standard that players are accustomed to in regular-season events.
“I don’t have any problem with it,” Thurmond said. “These players are tough kids. They do it all year.”
Georgia Tech’s Bruce Heppler is not a fan of any of the changes.
“I think it’s a mistake we have made to sacrifice the team part of the tournament, which has become a huge deal. We sold 4,500 tickets this year, which is a record, and we are taking away from that to validate an individual winner. This is an insult to Matt Hill, Scott Langley, John Peterson, Thomas Pieters and Max Homa. Are we saying what they did was not legitimate? To turn around and play (a semifinal) match is not the right thing to do.”
Overall, the final round of individual play is the primary thing that will make the 2014 NCAA Championship different. It is an experiment that has never been tried before.
“That day is going to be an awkward day,” Gregory said. “Maybe I am wrong, but other than the few kids out there who are trying to win, it will be a strange day. Do I really want a player out there who is tied for 40th trying to finish 32nd? And then have to possibly play 36 holes the next day?”