Duke, Arkansas advance to Match Play finals

Ethan Tracy during the championship match play at the 2009 NCAA Championships at Inverness Club in Toledo, Ohio.

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BRADENTON, Fla – Austin Cody’s match-winning par at No. 18 – his 17th hole of the day – barely had been conceded before Duke coach Jamie Green swept him up on a golf cart and the pair sped off to the front side of Concession Golf Club. Cody’s 2-and-1 victory over California’s Joel Stalter meant Duke had managed to clinch two of the five semifinal matches. The third lay in California’s possession (Max Homa beat Julian Suri, 4 and 3), and the other two were still very much alive.

Back and forth was the story of the day for Duke and Cal during the semifinals of the Callaway Collegiate Match Play, right down to the final match. When Duke junior Tim Gornik and Cal freshman Keelan Kirkpatrick ended 18 holes all square in the final match out, they pressed on, teeing it up at the par-3 fourth hole for sudden death. It’s there that Gornick sunk a 35-footer to send Duke to the final. His teammates erupted as they saw the putt find the bottom of the hole, and realized that it meant a chance to defend their title at the biggest match play event short of the national championship.

How does Green explain his team’s match-play prowess in the stroke-play world of college golf? A big factor is temperament. The Blue Devils play enough match play during the summers that they know what to expect, and when to get “amped up.”

“They’ve played enough of it that they were focused,” Green said.

This week, Duke, Golfweek’s No. 16-ranked team, has been able to maneuver its way around a risk-reward golf course, coming out ahead of Arizona State and Indiana in the first two rounds.

“This is a cool golf course to play match play on because the shot values are so high,” Green said, standing in front of the undulating 18th green that’s bordered by water on the right and a collection area to the rear. “You can hit a great shot and it means a lot, and if you miss it just a little bit it costs you a lot.”

In Cal’s corner, the loss sat as well as it could have. Reasoned head coach Steve Desimone, the Golden Bears stayed in the fight all day. That, and the opportunity to even play the extra holes. Time allowed it at the conclusion of Monday’s single round, but Iowa fell to East Carolina in Round 1 based on margin of victory. There just wasn’t enough time for a playoff.

Desimone and his team know anything can happen in sudden death, but Monday’s outcome doesn’t take anything away from Cal’s performance. Keeping up with a title-defending team that Desimone described as “scrappy” is a good sign for the postseason.

“We know what’s coming, or we hope what’s coming, and I think it really has made us battle-tested,” he said. “It was good that these guys had to really fight at every shot.”

• • •

When Arkansas senior Ethan Tracy flew the green at No. 18, the final hole of his match with Chattanooga’s Stephan Jaeger, there was a false sense of urgency around the clubhouse veranda. Tracy’s approach had flirted with water right of the green at the par 4, but there was no real need to worry that his opponent was just 1 down and only a few feet from the hole. Arkansas had a commanding lead.

Tracy, the reigning Western Amateur champion, used a soft flop shot to get up and down from a collection area long and right of the green and defeat Jaeger, 1 up. It amounted to five wins for Arkansas on the day, and the first of three matches that would end by a 1-up margin. The Razorbacks took the lead early as Chattanooga stumbled, and the Mocs never could catch up.

“You can’t give Arkansas a head start, they’re just too good a team,” Chattanooga head coach Mark Guhne said.

Tracy, ranked No. 30 by Golfweek, and Jaeger, No. 21, made up one of the best matches of the tournament. Tracy expected no less than a tight match when he saw Monday’s draw.

“We had a tough match all day -- we weren’t giving each other holes, it was a battle to win holes,” Tracy said. “I felt lucky to win it.”

Tracy’s victory followed lopsided ones by teammates Sebastian Cappelen (4 and 3) and Austin Cook (4 and 2). Head coach Brad McMakin was glad to have those in the bag as the other matches came down to the wire.

“It came down to the last three holes, and we played well down the stretch,” he said. “It could have gone either way. I think the first two matches helped us out a lot.

When the Razorbacks face Duke Tuesday in the final match, they’ll be gunning for a sixth season title. But then again, there’s the bigger picture to keep in mind. As one of the season’s few match-play events, this is as about as good as the preparation can get for a potential postseason run.

“We don’t play match play in the year,” McMakin said. “This is good preparation for us if we can be fortunate enough to be in the eight.”

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