Walsh's miraculous turnaround puts Virginia in line for NCAA match play spot

Thomas Walsh Virginia Jim Daves/Virginia Media Relations

Walsh's miraculous turnaround puts Virginia in line for NCAA match play spot

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Walsh's miraculous turnaround puts Virginia in line for NCAA match play spot

SUGAR GROVE, Ill. – Virginia needed a spark, and it got one. Big time.

With the team fading, Jimmy Stanger played his final 10 holes in 5 under. Teammate Thomas Walsh? He was 5 under in his final 11, with just 12 putts in that stretch.

That was the story Sunday for Virginia, which pushed off a sluggish start in the third round of the NCAA Championship to fire a 4-under 284 and jump three spots into a tie for seventh.

With one round of stroke play to go, the 19th-ranked Cavaliers are in line for to advance to match play for the first time.

“This program deserves to make match play,” Walsh said.

That Stanger (T-7, 7 under) was one of two catalysts in Sunday’s charge is unsurprising. The senior is No. 22 in the Golfweek/Sagarin rankings, won twice in 2016-17 and has seven finishes of T-11 or better this season.

Oh, and he played in the Valspar Championship, a PGA Tour event, this spring.

The fact that Walsh was the other? Not entirely expected. The sophomore (T-10, 6 under) has had his flashes this season (three top 10s, including a tie for second) but five of his finishes in 2016-17 are outside the top 30.

He’s third on the team in rating, sitting at No. 175, a far cry from Derek Bard at No. 42. Bard (T-59, 2 over) started to make a name for himself at the 2015 U.S. Amateur, where he finished runner-up.

Maybe this is Walsh’s coming out party.

“For him to come out and do what he did today in a situation where we needed him to do it,” Stanger said, “Thomas showed he can be the No. 1 on this team.”

There’s a reason Walsh’s time has been delayed.

His ball-striking and chipping numbers were as good as Stanger’s and Bard’s, but Walsh’s work on the greens had a lot to be desired.

In the conclusion to this fall, the final round of the Golf Club of Georgia Collegiate, Walsh shot 7-over 79 despite hitting 17 greens. He three-putted his final seven holes of the round.

“I easily had 43 putts (that day), and I was just sick and tired of this,” Walsh said.

As it turned out, Walsh had a dime-sized hole in the middle of his putter. He didn’t notice until after the tournament, and days later ordered a new one – he was long overdue, having used that same TaylorMade flatstick for at least five years.

But his putting continued to suffer. Walsh and Bowen Sargent, Virginia’s head coach, talked about the issue. When Walsh came back in January, the pair went about altering his stroke.

Walsh had been sporting a putting stroke with a huge arc that saw him hitting at the ball rather than smoothly swinging through it.

“I call it a pop stroke,” Sargent said. “Something you would see 50 years ago.”

So the pair fashioned a more conventional straight-back, straight-through stroke that was lower to the ground. But even as Walsh put in practice sessions on the greens lasting hours, his putting still got no better.

A tweak in set-up in early April – adjusting Walsh’s left arm to enable the putter to swing more open – finally seemed to do the trick.

In retrospect, Bowen wished he’d made the set-up adjustment before altering Walsh’s stroke.

“I probably messed up the order there,” Sargent said with a chuckle.

But Walsh finally got on track. He said he “lit it up” on the greens at the Gary Koch Invitational – the first tournament after the set-up adjustment. Ever since, his putter has not let him down.

Think about it: 43 putts in one round to 12 putts in 11 holes.

Walsh faced a 10-footer for birdie at Rich Harvest Farms’ par-4 first, his 10th hole Sunday, and couldn’t figure out the read.

“I just aimed at the center of the hole, I hit it and it went right in,” Walsh said. “I knew it was my day.”

If that confidence carries over, Virginia might just make history Monday.



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