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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa – You want some elements that might make a win special?
- Replacing a legend and looking to build on his foundation immediately? Check.
- Coaching for your alma mater, where you played college golf and started your coaching career? Check.
- Sweeping the team and individual titles? Check.
Press McPhaul lived a dream scenario Tuesday, as North Carolina State’s head coach saw his Wolfpack squad finish off a wire-to-wire victory at the Golfweek Conference Challenge. North Carolina State began the day with a five-shot cushion and held off hard-charging Iowa – which took the lead at one point in the final round – with a 1-under 287 to post a two-shot win at 17 under.
It was a similar success story in the individual race, as the Wolfpack’s Benjamin Shipp drained a 30-footer for birdie at the Cedar Rapids Country Club’s par-4 18th to also seal a two-shot victory (his first college title) at 10 under.
It was a sweep for the Wolfpack and also the first title under McPhaul’s leadership in the 44-year-old’s second event as the team’s head coach. McPhaul played at North Carolina State under Richard Sykes from 1991-96 and served as his assistant from 1998-2000.
Sykes retired as the Wolfpack’s head coach after the 2016-17 season following 46 years at the helm. For his successor, who views Sykes as a mentor and friend, to triumph so quickly definitely left a warm feeling.
“I guess there’s only one first, so that makes it special,” said McPhaul, who spent the previous 11 seasons as head coach at East Carolina. “It’ll always be something to look back on fondly.”
North Carolina State had a stranglehold on this tournament from the start, firing out to a 14-under 274 on Sunday to open up a nine-shot lead. Iowa’s 6-under 282 Monday pushed the Hawkeyes within five with one round to go, but the Wolfpack were sitting comfortably at 16 under.
Ultimately it would be a wire-to-wire win, but North Carolina State felt the heat Tuesday. The round, a shotgun start scheduled for 9 a.m. Central, was delayed roughly an hour and a half due to fog. When play did begin, the Hawkeyes weren’t messing around.
On a couple of occasions, Iowa took the lead outright or tied it, and wouldn’t go away until the very end.
The Hawkeyes would place in second at 15 under. Four players led the way for Iowa. Alex Schaake (second, 8 under), Ryoto Furuya (T-12, 2 under), Sam Meuret (T-16, 1 under) and Matthew Walker (T-19, even par) all finished in the top 20.
There were three Wolfpack players in the top 20 with the winner Shipp, Stephen Franken (fourth, 6 under) and Easton Paxton (T-19, even par).
Even if it looked easy early, it made sense North Carolina State got this done the hard way.
The trip to Cedar Rapids itself started inauspiciously when one of the wings on the plane North Carolina State took to the tournament started making an odd noise.
Harrison Rhoades, a junior already known to be anxious about flying, went to sleep momentarily before jumping up at the sound.
“I was like, ‘Harry, we’re not even in the air yet,’ ” Shipp said with a laugh.
Rhoades opened in 3-over 75 but progressed each day in a T-27 finish at 4 over.
Oddly it was Shipp, the winner, who most exemplified the Wolfpack taking the hard road to a win.
The sophomore posted all three rounds in the 60s and closed in what appeared to be a seamless 3-under 69 that included an eagle, two birdies and just a single bogey.
But scorecards don’t often reveal the whole truth.
Shipp began the round one behind Lipscomb’s Dawson Armstrong – who closed in 4-over 76 to place T-8 at 4 under – but took command early with a birdie at No.1 and an eagle at No. 6.
Now 10 under, Shipp was well in the lead and cruising.
Then, the challenge.
Shipp posted what appeared to be simple pars at Nos. 9 and 10, but he actually lipped out 3-footers for birdie on both holes.
Van Williams, the Wolfpack’s assistant coach, walked with Shipp the entire back nine, but McPhaul rode up to Shipp in 11 fairway, simply asking him if he wanted his lunch and any water.
There was no sign to McPhaul that Shipp was unnerved with his previous two misses.
“It’s a testament to how steadfast he was this week that it wasn’t evident at all,” McPhaul said.
Shipp has already had plenty of practice with frustration in the young season.
The sophomore was the top-ranked recruit in the Class of 2016 and enjoyed a solid freshman season in which he earned four top 10s and Ping All-Region Team honors.
But he opened the 2017-18 campaign at the Wolf Run Intercollegiate in a dismal 12-over 83.
Rather than panic, Shipp remained sanguine.
“The 83 was a fluke,” Shipp said. “I knew that wasn’t me.”
A vigorous range session produced the answer, it was nothing more than some swing issues (taking the club too outside and dropping it under) that caused a two-way miss.
After remedying that, Shipp closed 73-71 to jump from a tie for 81st to T-26.
As for the win, Shipp wasn’t nearly done after his troubles at Nos. 9 and 10.
He was baffled when his tee shot at the par-3 12th came up short (he yelled in the air for the ball to sit) and still couldn’t seem to make a putt on the back nine even as he was hitting good strokes.
Shipp’s mom, Ginny, was on hand watching the action, and the son actually almost hit his mom off 14 tee, as his pull into the left rough whizzed a few yards to the right of Ginny.
When Shipp got to his ball, it prompted him to jest out of concern:
“Hey Mom, make sure you stay to the left. I don’t want to kill you.”
Two holes later, another of the son’s pulled tee shots came barreling in a few yards to the right of his mom.
On top of all that, Shipp also had San Francisco’s Tim Widing striping it and hot on his tail.
When Shipp missed a 10-footer for par at 17, Widing was within one at 8 under.
The San Francisco sophomore had a short par putt at 18 when Shipp lined up his birdie putt from 30 feet – a left-to-right slider dangerously fast downhill across a slope.
A two-putt would get him the win, but was far from a guarantee. And Shipp’s putter wasn’t exactly blazing.
Still, Williams had encouraged him throughout, telling Shipp he was a great putter and rolling it well. He even told Shipp that the sophomore would make a 25-footer on the back nine.
Well, this one was even better, a pure 30-footer that probably would’ve rolled some 5 feet by but hit the center of the cup to end it all. (Widing would bogey to place third at 7 under.)
After it was over, Shipp embraced his mom, who didn’t even know what he’d done.
“She actually didn’t know I’d won,” Shipp said. “When I told her, she was shocked.”
He was simply returning the favor. Ginny was in town for a business trip, but her schedule had her working Tuesday.
She got done with work a day early, though, and surprised her son by showing up for the final round during the fog delay.
The Wolfpack family will have plenty of pleasantries to take from this as well.
Sykes texted McPhaul before the tournament, noting that the Wolfpack had finished second and third on their previous two trips to the Golfweek Conference Challenge. But he added on a message of belief:
Maybe this is the year we’ll break through.
Sykes may no longer work for the Wolfpack, but the “we” is appropriate.
McPhaul noted that as East Carolina’s head coach, he lost the recruiting battle to North Carolina State on Shipp, Franken and Nolan Mills Jr. (who finished the week in a tie for 30th at 5 over).
McPhaul may already be making his own mark on the Wolfpack, but he does not need to hoard the credit. These are players his predecessors got to North Carolina State.
Teacher and student can both experience the glory.
“This is still in many ways (Sykes’) program,” McPhaul said. “We share this with him.”
Sykes produced plenty of memories with his humor, but this one, when he wasn’t even present, may be one of his most special.