Ding! Ding! Ding!
TOLEDO, Ohio – The inaugural NCAA Division I Men’s Championship played under the new medal/match-play format is in the books.
It will show Texas A&M as the team champion and North Carolina State sophomore Matt Hill as the individual winner following the 54-hole stroke-play portion.
Coming into the championship, there was a lot of talk and controversy about this format. Some questioned the change from the traditional 72 holes of stroke play.
After watching the week unfold, I give the format – match play, in particular – an A-plus. If you were there at Inverness Club, watched the two days of match play and did not get excited, then you need to check your pulse.
One reason the NCAA Golf Committee went to this format was the hopes of landing live television coverage for the national championship. It didn’t happen this year, and it was TV’s loss.
It was golf theater from the start. And there’s no way anyone could script the finish.
In the final, with the teams tied at two match victories apiece, it came down to the final match on the course between seniors Bronson Burgoon of Texas A&M and Andrew Landry of Arkansas.
Burgoon was 4 up with five holes to play, and it looked like it was over. But Landry refused to quit. He won the next four holes to square the match coming to the famed 18th hole at Inverness.
With a shot that will go down in NCAA Championship lore, Burgoon hit a gap wedge from the right rough, 120 yards out, to 3 inches from the hole for a conceded birdie.
When Landry’s 35-foot birdie putt on the final hole missed, the crowd erupted, the Aggies jumped and screamed, and Texas A&M had a national title.
What transpired over the course of the week – second-round weather delay notwithstanding – was some of the most exciting and intense golf to be found anywhere, the PGA Tour included.
Is this format the ideal way to determine the best team in the country? No.
Then again, the 72-hole stroke play didn’t always successfully serve that purpose.
If anyone has a good reason to hate the new medal/match-play format, it would be Oklahoma State coach Mike McGraw.
After 54 holes of stroke play, McGraw’s top-ranked Cowboys were in first place at 3-under-par 849 – 13 shots better than Arizona State and 20 fewer than Georgia and Texas A&M, which tied for seventh to earn the last two spots in match play.
The way Oklahoma State played those initial three rounds, and the way it had played coming in (winning three consecutive tournaments), there was little doubt that if the tournament had been its traditional 72 holes of stroke play, McGraw would have his second NCAA title and the Cowboys would have NCAA title trophy No. 11.
Seeded No. 1 for match play, Oklahoma State faced No. 8 (but No. 2-ranked) Georgia. The Bulldogs won, 3-2, and the Cowboys left Toledo empty-handed.
Still, McGraw supports the format.
“We played great all week but just didn’t get it done today,” McGraw said. “I still love this format and still think it’s the way for us to go.”
Obviously Texas A&M coach J.T. Higgins and Arkansas coach Brad McMakin felt the same as their teams played in the championship match. Every coach at Inverness that I talked to pretty much echoed those sentiments, from Georgia’s Chris Haack, whose team lost in the semifinals, to TCU’s Bill Montigel, whose Horned Frogs finished ninth in stroke play.
Over the years, I’ve covered my share of team match-play events: Walker, Ryder, Presidents, Solheim and Palmer cups, to name a few. That Georgia-Oklahoma State match, which came down to Georgia’s Brian Harman making an 8-foot birdie putt on the final hole for the win, and the A&M-Arkansas final rank up there with the best I’ve seen.
For those traditionalists who favor a 72-hole stroke-play event, get over it. The match-play portion is here to stay. And, it’s going to be a good thing for college golf.