2006: ’86 finals: Spills, thrills and chills
Some of the details of the 1986 NCAA Men’s Championship jump immediately to mind. Others I have to dig deep to remember.
What I do recall is, the tournament was being played the last week of May at Bermuda Run Country Club in Winston-Salem, N.C., and Wake Forest was the host team.
I was excited. At my inaugural NCAA Championship the previous year, I had witnessed Houston and legendary coach Dave Williams capture the title at Grenelefe Resort in Haines City, Fla. It marked Williams’ – and the program’s – record 16th NCAA title. It was an honor to watch it unfold.
Could it get any better than that?
I was off to North Carolina to find out.
The Demon Deacons were led by senior All-Americans Billy Andrade and Chris Kite and under the direction of Jesse Haddock, another coaching legend. But with three freshman in the lineup – Len Mattiace, Barry Fabyan and Tim Straub – Wake would need to play its best.
In addition to Houston, programs such as Oklahoma, Brigham Young, Arizona State, Southern California, Florida, LSU and Miami (Fla.) – yes, the Hurricanes had a men’s golf team back then – were among the nation’s elite.
I also remember the team that stood at the top of the stack: Oklahoma State. There was no doubt the Cowboys entered as the team to beat at Bermuda Run. Always an NCAA title contender under coach Mike Holder, Oklahoma State had finished second the previous two years and won the title in 1983.
The Cowboys had won 10 times during the 1985-86 season and were deservedly ranked No. 1.
OSU was led by senior Scott Verplank, who along with Southern Cal’s Sam Randolph, was considered one of the country’s top two players in college and amateur golf. In addition, there was plenty of young talent in the OSU lineup in sophomores E.J. Pfister, Brian Watts and Michael Bradley, as well as junior Kevin Whipple.
A first-team All-American, Verplank had won the 1984 U.S. Amateur, and in 1985, had captured the Western Amateur and also became the first amateur since Gene Littler in 1954 to win a PGA Tour event – the Western Open.
With PGA Tour playing status awaiting him, the 1986 NCAA finals would be Verplank’s final hurrah in amateur golf, and everyone expected him to make the most of it. He wouldn’t disappoint.
After shooting 68-68-73 the first three days, Verplank took a four-shot lead over teammate Pfister into the final round. The Cowboys also led the team competition after firing rounds of 287-284-289 for a 862 total and an eight-shot lead over BYU, nine over Oklahoma and 11 over Miami. It appeared all was lost for Wake after a third-round 302, which equaled the day’s worse team score.
The Deacons fell into a fifth-place tie with Southern Cal at 878, a whopping 16 strokes behind OSU.
Thus the stage was set for what I remember the most about the 1986 NCAA Championship – the greatest final-day team comeback in the event’s long and storied history.
Despite their third-round bomb, Wake still had plenty of local fan support that final day. Most of the rest of the gallery was watching Oklahoma State to see if the Cowboys could notch their sixth NCAA title and fifth in the Holder era.
The Cowboys stayed pretty much in control throughout the front nine with Oklahoma and BYU staying within striking distance. Playing in the wave ahead, Wake Forest picked up a little ground, but with nine holes to go still trailed by 12 shots.
Then I remember starting to hear some cheering up ahead. The cheering grew louder and more sustained. At times it became a roar. Hustling forward, I learned the Deacons were making birdie after birdie, and after some rough calculations – there was no computer scoring in those days – I realized they could be making a run at the title.
One by one, the Wake players finished. Straub had a respectable 74 and Mattiace came in with a 69, as did Andrade. But it was the 6-under 66 shot by Kite that made winning a national championship a distinct possibility.
Wake shot 10-under 278 and stood at 4-over 1,156 for the championship. Then the waiting game began, and we all hung by the 18th green and watched the final groups finish. When they did, no Cowboy had shot under par for the day, and OSU’s 10-over 298 left them four shots behind Wake.
When that fact became known, a major celebration took place. Haddock, now with his third NCAA title, scurried around getting hugs from everyone in sight. Fans mobbed the players; the players mobbed each other. I think I saw Andrade and Kite doing a little dance, and I’ll never forget the smiles on each Wake player’s face.
I knew I had just witnessed history. That morning, the local newspapers had all but put the final nail in the Demon Deacons’ coffin and had blasted their third-round performance. I guess that was the motivation Haddock and his players needed.
I was enjoying watching the Demon Deacons and their fans celebrating. But I also knew I had a job to do, and part of that job was to talk to the individual champion. That was Verplank, whose closing 73 – the best on the OSU team – gave him a 6-under 282 total and a four-stroke victory.
I located Verplank and the rest of the Cowboys sitting in a wooded area a short distance from the scoreboard area and the surrounding festivities. Not much chatter going on there.
Understandably, Verplank wasn’t in a very talkative mood. When he did speak, he fought back tears. Yes, he had just won an NCAA Championship and was about to embark on a pro career. But for him, it was a shallow victory. Verplank gladly would have given away his individual title for the opportunity to celebrate one with his teammates.
That’s when I first realized how much of a team sport college golf really is, and just how special of an event the NCAA Championship can be.
I haven’t missed an NCAA finals since, and though there have been some exciting ones, Wake’s marvelous comeback in ’86 always will provide me with a lingering, precious memory.
It was a classic case of witnessing firsthand the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat in a unique way that only college golf can provide.