Martin: Thursday will provide tough test at NCAAs
PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. – Golf, like any sport, is at its best when athletes face a win-or-go-home scenario. Thursday at the NCAA Championship presents such a situation. It's college golf's Game 7.
NCAA Men's Championship: Round 2
Images from the second round of stroke play at the NCAA Championship, played Wednesday at Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades, Calif.
The Riviera Country Club: Hole No. 10
Golfweek's Tracy Wilcox put together a collection of images from hole No. 10 at Riviera Country Club, which often is called the best short par 4 in golf. It's been costly so far for players at the NCAA Championship.
“Your year culminates at that point,” said UCLA head coach Derek Freeman. The 30-team NCAA Championship field will be narrowed to an eight-team, match-play bracket after Thursday’s third round of stroke play. That drama often overshadows the race for the NCAA individual title, which also is decided Thursday. Not only is finishing in the top eight necessary to extend a team’s season, but it provides a sense of hope. If there’s one thing that’s certain about match play, it’s that everything is uncertain.
The favorite has never prevailed in the three years that match play has been used to decide the national champion. That’s one reason Thursday is so fun. Hope springs anew and the slate is wiped clean when match play starts. Upsets are expected. Augusta State wouldn’t have gone back-to-back if not for this format. Oklahoma State head coach Mike McGraw would have more rings than a Beverly Hills housewife if the NCAA had never switched from stroke play.
Plenty of teams have hope entering the final stroke-play round of the season. Most will leave disappointed, though. It’s a tight race for the top eight at Riviera. Five teams – California, Kent State, Florida, USC and Illinois – are tied for eighth place at 16 over. Only eight strokes separate Oklahoma and North Florida, which are tied for fourth at 13 over, from 18th-place Iowa. Eight strokes is a small margin when four scores are counted.
No. 1 Texas and No. 7 Oregon will start Thursday one stroke outside the cut line. Fifth-ranked Auburn is three shots outside the cut. Stanford, the nation’s eighth-ranked team, is in 22nd place, 11 shots back of eighth place. Those teams are on the outside looking in while squads such as 29th-ranked Liberty and No. 28 Oklahoma are on pace for match-play bids.
Cell-phone batteries will be taxed Thursday as coaches continually click ‘refresh’ on their mobile browsers. They have a love-hate relationship with live scoring. It’s easy to become addicted, for coaches to start checking their phones more than a tech-obsessed teenager. When USC head coach Chris Zambri was asked how often he checks live scoring, he replied, “How often does it update?”
Human error can make live scoring inaccurate – “You don’t want to make decisions on incorrect information,” said Cal head coach Steve Desimone – and deceptive. On a difficult course such as Riviera, teams that have completed fewer holes will be higher on the leaderboard because they’ve had fewer opportunities to make bogey.
“You know that as a coach,” Thurmond said, “but you also know your guys are seeing it on the scoreboard, and it’s hard to overcome.”
Riviera’s difficult closing stretch, and the tightly-packed leaderboard, means nothing will be settled until the final group finishes around 7:30 p.m. PDT. Of the final six holes, five have averaged more than a quarter-stroke over par in the first round. Only the par-5 17th offers a reprieve. Riviera’s famed finishing hole – an 475-yard, uphill par-4 - is known for its difficulty.
“The last phrase I’d ever use to describe Riviera right now is ‘birdie-fest,’ ” Zambri said, “which is good because if you play well, you can make up strokes with pars.”
Like any major-championship venue, Riviera rewards steady play. “Riviera will penalize you for dumb golf and bad golf,” said Alabama head coach Jay Seawell.
The reward is great come Thursday. That’s why it may just be the best day of the college-golf season.