ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. – Neither Vanderbilt nor Texas A&M have won a Southeastern Conference men’s golf title.
Granted the Aggies joined the conference for the 2012-13 season, a year after capturing the Big 12 crown. The Commodores have gone much longer. Vanderbilt first competed in the SEC Championship in 1965 and finished last in its first eight conference appearances. And in 2015, the Commodores nearly ended the drought before finishing second, three shots behind LSU.
On Monday, both teams will square off in the first-ever SEC match-play final. Vanderbilt, the second-ranked team in the Golfweek/Sagarin rankings, won two 3-2 nail-biters against Ole Miss and then Florida on Sunday at Sea Island Golf Club’s Seaside Course. No. 18 Texas A&M swept Missouri before edging Alabama, 3-2, to reach the championship match.
Both teams advanced on winning putts.
First was Vanderbilt, which received two big wins from its anchor players, senior Matthias Schwab and junior Theo Humphrey, before freshman John Augenstein made a 15-footer for birdie on the second playoff hole, the par-4 11th, to beat Florida freshman Andy Zhang.
Zhang had rallied, winning two of the final three holes of regulation to force extra holes. That’s when Vanderbilt assistant coach Dusty Smith turned to the freshman nicknamed “Johnny Golf” and offered some motivating words.
“He looked at me and said, ‘This is why you’re here. This is why you signed up to go here. This is what we’re about. This is what we do. You’re made for this moment,’ ” Augenstein said.
He had already squandered one moment, missing a 3-footer at No. 18 to lose the hole. He wasn’t going to let that happen again, even after hitting his tee ball at No. 11 into a fairway bunker. He found the green and after Zhang missed a birdie putt from the fringe, the freshman got the job done, sending his teammates and head coach Scott Limbaugh into a frenzy.
“John has really added a punch to our lineup that we really needed,” Limbaugh said.
Said Florida coach J.C. Deacon: “The fight that our team showed was incredible. I’m heartbroken for our guys, but I’m so proud of them. Andy Zhang was an absolute warrior out there and never quit. He believed he was going to win until the end and it took a great birdie to beat us.”
That wasn’t the only excitement of the day for Vanderbilt. The Commodores were on the ropes against a much improved Ole Miss squad before Schwab rallied from 3 down through 10 holes against Braden Thornberry, a four-time winner this season, and won his final two holes to send Vanderbilt through.
For a team that has struggled the past two NCAA Championships in match play, Vanderbilt showed it can play well in the format Sunday.
“They didn’t show me anything that I didn’t already know,” Limbaugh said. “… But this morning was really important for us. Truth is, we haven’t done great in match play the last couple of years at the NCAA Championship, but we’ve grown from that.”
Texas A&M hasn’t been to match play at the NCAA Championship since winning it all in 2009, the first year match play was used to determine a national champion.
“It feels like a long time ago,” Aggies head coach J.T. Higgins said.
Higgins was reminded of that NCAA Championship on Sunday, though.
“I was telling (assistant) coach (Brian) Kortan that that’s the first time my stomach’s been in knots since 2009,” Higgins said.
Higgins was likely more nervous than junior Cameron Champ, who showed veins full of ice water – and the amount of short-game work he’s put in – as he drained a 10-footer for par on the closing hole to beat Alabama’s Steven Setterstrom, 1 up, and clinch the victory for the Aggies.
Champ, who has battled a back injury for much of the past few years, is playing the best golf of his college career right now. He tied for fifth in the stroke-play portion at Sea Island, his fifth top-6 finish in his last six events.
“That’s kind of what we thought we were getting when we recruited him,” Higgins said, “and now he’s really coming into his own.”
He and teammate Chandler Phillips, a sophomore, have combined for 15 top 10s, including three victories, this season. Phillips downed Alabama’s best player, Davis Riley, 3 and 2, and will draw Schwab on Monday.
“I haven’t played much match play in my life, but this – this is fun,” Phillips said.
At the team’s last event, the Louisiana Classics, Phillips played with Haskins Award favorite Sam Burns of LSU, and shot 78-78 to finish T-23.
“He was trying to play Sam’s game,” Higgins said.
This weekend, Phillips has played his own game, which is pretty darn good. His teammates haven’t done too bad handling the pressure, either. In the quarterfinals against Missouri, the Aggies combined for just four bogeys.
“We usually make more than that,” Higgins quipped.
They’ll need a similar performance against Vanderbilt, one of the deepest teams in college golf.
“We were trying to figure out their weak link, and they don’t have one,” Higgins said. “… They might be the best team in the country, so we’re going to have to play some great golf again.”
Limbaugh thinks equally of Texas A&M, but knows the key is his team focusing on what it can control.
“It’s an important day,” Limbaugh said. “The most important thing for us to understand is that we’re going to play another awesome opponent tomorrow but that our focus all year has been about us and what we do.”
It’s Vanderbilt vs. Texas A&M on Monday at Sea Island. Winner will take home the SEC title for the first time.