PALM COAST, Fla. – It was all slipping away.
After owning the upper hand for basically the entire finals match Saturday at the Big Ten Match Play Championship, Northwestern appeared it might fall short.
The Wildcats held a 5-1 lead in their matches against Penn State well into the action and were still up 4-1-1 on the back nine. Then the Nittany Lions turned some contests, and all of a sudden, the proceedings were tied, 3-3.
That was the case as Northwestern’s Everton Hawkins and Penn State’s Alec Bard (younger brother to 2015 U.S. Amateur finalist and Virginia senior Derek Bard) reached the par-5 18th green at Hammock Beach Resort’s Conservatory Course.
Hawkins faced about 35 feet for birdie, while Bard still had some 8-10 feet for his par. The pair, both freshmen, were all square in the match, and if Hawkins could win the hole, Northwestern would capture the Big Ten Match Play title for the first time in five years.
Hawkins didn’t exactly know that he needed a 1-up victory to give Northwestern the team crown. But he had a sense, as Pat Goss, the program’s director of golf and player development, told him earlier on 18 that Hawkins was going to win this hole.
So what happened? Goss proved prophetic, as Hawkins drained the 35-foot putt – earning a spirited roar – to grab a 1-up victory and a walk-off 3.5-2.5 Wildcats win.
“I have to admit, I was really surprised (it went in),” Hawkins said, with a laugh. “I was trying to make it, but the odds of doing that are very slim.”
He did have a little help. Teammate Dylan Wu saw that putt before and knew it wasn’t as fast as it seemed. He informed a coach, who made sure Hawkins knew. Even with this info, the freshman still barely got the ball to the hole, thinking it had come up short before it indeed trickled in. The Irvine, Calif., product felt it was definitely the biggest putt of his life to date considering the circumstances.
“I love that pressure, and I’m happy to make the putt and win for the team,” Hawkins said.
His teammates appreciated it, dousing Hawkins in water minutes after clinching the win. Redshirt senior Andrew Whalen joked as he walked by that the water bottle shower may have been overkill.
Then again, this was another big milestone for Northwestern. Entering the 2016-17 season, the Wildcats hadn’t won a tournament since 2013. But they captured the Marquette Milwaukee CC Invitational in October and now have a second win on the resume in five 2016-17 starts.
Consequently, the team’s standing is rising. After three straight years of straddling a finish rank of 60th, Northwestern is No. 37 in the country and may have its best chance of reaching the NCAA Championship for the first time since 2011.
“We know if we play well, we’ve got a chance against anyone,” said David Inglis, Northwestern’s head coach. “At the Gifford (Collegiate in November), we played USC in match play. Preseason No. 1 and they won the tournament by I don’t know how many shots in the stroke-play portion. They (beat us) 4-2, but we had three matches come down to the last hole.”
Northwestern had won three of the first four Big Ten Match Play Championships (in 2010, 2011 and 2012) but had stalled on a fourth until now. The third-seeded Wildcats opened the two-day event Friday afternoon with a 3-1-2 quarterfinal victory over Rutgers and followed Saturday morning with a 4-1-1 triumph over Minnesota. Michigan and Michigan State, the Nos. 1 and 2 seeds, lost their quarterfinal matches in tiebreakers to leave the Wildcats as the highest seed left with a chance to win.
In Saturday afternoon’s championship match, graduate student Conor Richardson was put out in the lead position and downed Christian Elliot, 5 and 4. The battle of the two teams’ best players in the anchor match went decidedly Northwestern’s way as Dylan Wu thumped Charles Huntzinger, 7 and 5. Of course there was Hawkins’ victory, and a halve from Andrew Whalen in the second slot accounted for the remaining half point.
Preparation was of course key this week. Northwestern practiced short-game, putting and match-play contests ahead of the tilt in Florida. But the team also already put in some work for next week’s Puerto Rico Classic, recreating holes they will see using TrackMan.
“I give them the yardage book, I’ve got all the parameters – fairway width, runout, the target line – and basically just give them a situation of a tee shot we’ll see in Puerto Rico,” Inglis said. “We’ve got the fans blowing on them (too).
“Every day, we’re trying to do something that keeps it fresh.”
All of this is done indoors of course even as the Evanston, Ill., area – where Northwestern is based – has experienced a mild winter. Yes, cold weather: Not exactly a unique problem when it comes to the Big Ten. And there isn’t one right way to deal with it. Illinois, a perennial national powerhouse, tends not to fret too much about slumping after the winter, and that strategy hasn’t turned out too bad.
Northwestern actually hopes to gain from the winter, though, with it being a more kind time for tinkering.
“We can make big changes without really seeing the results of the shot being bad, if it is bad,” Hawkins said.
If Northwestern is going to make a run at an NCAA Championship berth, the improving top two of Wu, a junior, and sophomore Ryan Lumsden will be the main key. But Hawkins could be a wildcard.
The freshman is considered the longest player on the team, pounding drives consistently 300 yards, and maybe its most hot and cold, as his rounds ranged from 67 to 78 this fall.
Inglis described Hawkins as “a cool customer,” and in referring to the freshman’s winning putt, noted the team had coined the term #ToffeeTime. Explainer: Hawkins was named after Premier League team Everton, known as the Toffees. Inglis made the connection and Hawkins earned the nickname “Toffee.”
The coaching staff has had to become adept at adjusting in recent years. Two star recruits, Charles Wang and Matt Fitzpatrick, left early. Wang lasted a year before turning pro, while Fitzpatrick only went half-a-season prior to withdrawing from Northwestern.
Considering the Englishman’s prior resume (World No. 1 amateur, 2013 U.S. Amateur champion) that was the biggest blow.
“It really hurt when we lost Matt Fitzpatrick (now a three-time European Tour winner),” Inglis said. “He was the only player we recruited in that class, so it takes some time to recover from that.”
As the wins pile up, some 37 months later the recovery is well on its way.