NCAAs: May the Tide be with them . . .
Texas, Alabama, UCLA, USC, Auburn, California, Oregon, Stanford, Texas A&M and Washington.
Those are 10 of the top 11 teams in the latest Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings, and each one of them, I believe, has a legitimate chance at winning college golf’s biggest prize when the NCAA Championship takes place May 29-June 3 at Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades, Calif. (No. 9 Georgia Tech did not qualify for the NCAA finals.)
Of course, only one team will do so – and maybe it won’t even be one of these 10 teams. With the NCAA championship going to a stroke/match-play format, we all know strange things can happen, especially in the match-play portion.
Still, in my opinion, the champion will be one of these 10. But which one?
That’s right, it’s time for “Wrong Ron” to once again go out on a ledge and make his pick. So what if the last time I was right was in 2003, when Clemson won it all. And big deal if I’ve only picked two other winners correctly in the past 25 years (Oklahoma State in 1995 and UNLV in 1998).
Am I down and out because most coaches consider my pick the ultimate jinx and a curse of death? Hardly. It’s just more fuel for my fire.
Looking at the 10 teams previously mentioned, I have to start with Texas. The Longhorns are having their best season in ages and certainly have what it takes for the program to win its first NCAA title since doing so back-to-back in 1971-72, when a couple of guys named Ben Crenshaw and Tom Kite were leading the way. Coach John Fields will bring to Riviera a team that has won seven times this season and carries both the No. 1 ranking and No. 1 seed. The ‘Horns definitely have what it takes to “Hook ‘Em” this time around.
But you also have to like any of the Pac-12 schools. No. 3-ranked UCLA and No. 4 USC play Riviera quite a bit and certainly have course knowledge on their side.
No. 6 California also knows something about how to win, thanks to a school-record six victories this season, including the Pac-12 and NCAA West Regional titles in recent weeks. No. 6 Oregon also has six tournament titles, and though No. 7 Stanford has only one victory, the Cardinal boast a solid 1-to-5 lineup. Then there’s No. 11 Washington. The Huskies struggled a little at season’s end, but a victory at the Southwest Regional has coach Matt Thurmond’s crew coming into the finals with renewed confidence.
Even with its No. 5 ranking, Auburn seems to fly under most radar screens. But make no mistake, these Tigers have plenty of game. They have three victories and are 11-for-11 in top-4 finishes, including second places at the Southeastern Conference Championship and NCAA East Regional.
No. 10 Texas A&M captured the national title in 2009, the first year it was played under the current format, and don’t think coach J.T. Higgins and his Aggies can’t do it again. The Big 12 champs, even without the services of an injured Cameron Peck, still possess plenty of firepower.
That leaves No. 2 Alabama.
Let’s see, the last – and only – time that Wrong Ron picked the Crimson Tide to win the national title was 2008 at Purdue. And Alabama didn’t tarnish my well-earned reputation, finishing 13th.
The following year, 'Bama placed 15th in the stroke-play portion at Inverness, and in 2010 didn’t even qualify for the finals.
Then last year, a highly touted Tide team had a major meltdown in the third round at Karsten Creek. In third place after the first day and fifth after two rounds, Alabama shot 28-over 316 in Round 3 and never even sniffed the Elite 8, finishing 15th. Ouch!
It was a devastating time for coach Jay Seawell and his squad and no doubt has served as a rallying cry throughout the current season. Alabama was better than that – and is better than that.
So I ask myself, what reasons do I have to pick Alabama this time around?
Well, I know of five very good ones: Justin Thomas, Bobby Wyatt, Cory Whitsett, Hunter Hamrick and Scott Strohmeyer.
That’s the lineup that has produced four of Alabama’s five victories this season, including its most recent ones at the SEC Championship and Southeast Regional.
After not winning in the fall, the Tide opened the spring with an 18-shot victory in Puerto Rico. Then they won the Schenkel by 22 strokes, the Linger Longer by 14, the SEC by six and, most impressive of all, their regional by 25.
Justin Thomas is on the path for first-team All-America and national freshman-of-the-year honors with his seven top 10s and four victories in 11 starts, including the SEC and regional titles.
Sophomores Whitsett and Wyatt and the team’s lone senior, Hamrick, also can go low. Whitsett has five top 10s, including two victories, and was third at regionals, while Wyatt has five top 5s and placed second at both SEC and regionals. Hamrick has four top 5s and was 15th at regionals.
Strohmeyer, a junior, completes the fivesome. He’s had only six starts, but has four top 25s.
Thomas is No. 2 in the Golfweek/Sagarin rankings, slightly behind Texas freshman Jordan Spieth. Wyatt ranks 17th, Whitsett 18th and Hamrick 55th.
So, although Alabama comes in with a fairly young lineup, it is a potent one that knows how to win and is ready to make amends for last year’s heartbreak.
I just know that Seawell and crew are going to travel cross-country to Riviera and prove Wrong Ron, well, right.
And, when they return to Tuscaloosa, they’ll have a national-championship trophy with them. It will look quite nice next to the one brought home this past season by the Alabama football team.