Does an NCAA individual title really matter?
NCAA Round 2 recap
• Scores: Round 2
• VIDEO: Check out the FSU team van
OOLTEWAH, Tenn. – The Honors Course is a beautiful place, tucked down in a valley at the foot of a mountain. Really is. Haven’t heard one bad word about it this week at the NCAA Championship, not even as lightning bolts were shaking the ground and forcing spectators into the cart barn. Everywhere you look, you see and feel a championship golf course, from the fescue to the fanfare to Wednesday night’s fading sunlight.
There is something missing, though.
Care to take a guess, especially as we embark on a final round that will finalize both the eight-team match-play field and (and that is a big and) the NCAA individual champion?
Take it away, Drew Kittleson: “I didn’t see an individual leaderboard out there.”
You don’t say.
Kittleson shot 2-under 70 in Round 2 to help Florida State to a 14-under 562 total, five shots ahead of top-ranked Oklahoma State and 15 shots ahead of eighth place. Individually, Kittleson is tied for seventh place, five shots behind leader Alex Ching, whose 6-under 66 to tie a competitive course record late Wednesday was only one example that great rounds are out there, especially if the fairways and greens stay this soft. Virginia’s Henry Smart followed a first-round 82 with a 66, and Illinois’ Scott Langley was at 5 under through 17 holes when play was called to darkness.
Certainly Kittleson needs a great round, not to mention some help, to end up at the top of the leaderboard Thursday (or Friday, depending on the weather).
But if he’s actually in the mix toward the end, how will he know?
“Just depend on my coaches to tell me,” said Kittleson, a junior who finished runner-up at the 2008 U.S. Amateur.
Two weeks ago at the NCAA Central Regional, Kittleson walked to the 17th tee needing a birdie to win the individual title. But he didn’t know that. He wasn’t even thinking about it until his coach, Trey Jones, came over to tell him that the Seminoles already had qualified for the NCAA Championship.
“Do whatever you want,” Jones told him. “’Cause we’re in.” So Kittleson made his birdie and won.
While Kittleson may be lucky enough to receive similar information from Jones in Thursday’s final round of stroke play, considering the Seminoles’ lead and their great play of late, several other individuals in the top 10 probably won’t have that luxury, as they fight for their teams’ survival above all else.
Highlights: NCAA Championship (Rd. 2)
Thing is, it doesn’t seem like a big deal to anyone, which is just another sign that the NCAA individual championship has become de-emphasized, especially since last year’s format change.
The biggest story coming out of the 1996 NCAA Championship was Tiger Woods’ individual title despite a final-round 80. Barring something like a hole-in-one on the par-5 17th hole, the biggest story this week most likely will pile themselves into a van Sunday with a big gold-and-wood trophy.
“Team matters,” said Oklahoma State sophomore Peter Uihlein, who sits in a three-way tie for second at 7-under 137. “Team. That’s it.”
Presented with several scenarios about coming down the stretch with a chance to win the individual title, Uihlein never flinched.
“I would rather have a team championship than an individual championship,” he said. “The team matters.”
Oklahoma State coach Mike McGraw said he knows each of his players can accept “whatever they get” individually.
“They know what they want as a team, he said. “Every one of those kids are here committed to try and win this thing.”
The passion in McGraw’s voice was captivating.
“For the one time in their life, they’re on a team,” he said. “You can’t include the Walker Cup, you can’t include the Ryder Cup – those things aren’t teams; it’s a bunch of guys coming together for one week and calling it a team. They’re playing for their country, and that’s wonderful. But this is a team. They eat together, they travel together, they work out together, they practice and play together – they beat each other’s brains out together.
“So to me, if the individual aspect gets lost a little bit, so be it.”
By the way, has anyone seen the individual leaderboard?
“I don’t know any individual scores, so I don’t know. If you play for yourself and you play well, you’re obviously helping the team, so that’s just my mindset right now,” said Florida State’s Seath Lauer, who is at 5-under 139.
“I don’t know the individual scores, but tomorrow it’s going to be about the team, to get in the top 8. That is what matters,” said Augusta State’s Henrik Norlander, who is tied for second with Uihlein and Langley.
“We’re out of (the top 8) right now, so it’s all about the team,” said Stanford’s Sihwan Kim, tied for 13th at 2-under 142. “I’ve played well as an individual in tournaments before, but nothing feels better than winning as a team.”
By the way, does anyone know who finished second to Tiger in 1996?
“Rory Sabbatini,” Kittleson said. “But that’s just because I looked yesterday.”