Lavner: Day 3 marked the end for many at NCAAs

Jeffrey Kang of USC signals his ball left at No. 4 during the final round of stroke play at the 2012 NCAA Championship. USC did not advance to match play.

Men's Rankings »

RankNameSchoolRating
1Cheng Tsung PanWashington  67.01 
2Ollie SchniederjansGA Tech  67.55 
3Lee McCoyGeorgia  67.60 
4Maverick McNealyStanford  67.74 
5Charlie DanielsonIllinois  68.40 

Men's Team Rankings »

RankNameRatingEvents
1Illinois 68.99 
2Florida State 69.66 
3LSU 70.00 
4Texas 70.02 
5Oregon 70.04 

Complete Round 3 scores can be found here.

• • •

PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. – The reality is that careers end here at the NCAA Championship, amid all of the scoring fluctuations and the heart palpitations and the web-browser refreshing. It’s so sudden. Players shake hands with their fellow playing competitors, climb the steep steps behind the 18th green at Riviera Country Club, sign their scorecards in the locker room . . . and then what? They turn pro. They seek employment. They move on.

“I’m not sure if I should cry, laugh or sleep, but it’s a weird feeling,” East Carolina senior Harold Varner (@HV3_Golf) wrote on Twitter Thursday afternoon. “College golf is done forever #crazy.”

How do you prepare for the end?

Players such as Virginia senior Ben Kohles, a two-time ACC Player of the Year, breezed through the final 18 holes in a nostalgic fog, even though he won’t turn professional until after the U.S. Amateur in August. It’s still the last time he’ll play with Stanford and TCU. It’s still the last time he’ll play for a coach. It’s still the last time he’ll depend on teammates. “It’s sad for it to end,” Kohles said, “but I’m ready to move on.”

Others weren’t quite so prepared. After 54 holes of stroke play, the top eight teams advance to the match-play portion that begins Friday. Twenty-two others do not. So on Thursday night - or Friday morning, if they wish to stay another night in the luxurious Loews Hotel in Santa Monica - players pack their luggage and head back to Texas or North Carolina or Georgia. Unfortunately for USC, coaches and players simply drove back to their houses, dorms and apartments, left to sort through the emotions later, a 10-month season ending so suddenly.

“It’s just a real bummer,” said USC coach Chris Zambri, whose team tied for 15th. “It just wasn’t good enough. A championship golf course demands championship play, and we just didn’t have that.”

How do you prepare for the end?

Poor J.T. Higgins. For a while Thursday, the Texas A&M coach sat in the grass on the edge of the practice putting green, overlooking 18 green at Riviera, binoculars slung over his left shoulder, watching as 15 other teams determined his squad’s fate. The Aggies finished at 27-over 879, the best score among the early finishers, but it wasn’t enough to extend their stay. They finished solo 14th. Soon, Higgins was gone.

Illinois coach Mike Small and his team left L.A. early too, but not without an extra carry-on. Thomas Pieters, a sophomore, won the NCAA individual title - the second Illini player to win in the past three years (Scott Langley, 2010) - but Small wasn’t wholly satisfied. Naturally, as a coach, he was greedy; he wanted both titles, team and individual. “We just didn’t bring it today,” he said. “We fired an empty gun.”

How do you prepare for the end?

For a few years now, Matt Thurmond has walked the last few holes of stroke play with a senior. The Washington coach soaks up the experience. He watches that player in a Huskies polo for the final time.

This isn’t college basketball. In this season finale, you can’t put a reserve on the floor with the clock winding down and the crowd ready for a standing ovation. It’s too intense. Seasons end when the final putt drops.

“You just try to be as prepared as you can be,” Thurmond said of the final round, “but it’s such an emotional ending.”

It certainly was for Cal. In the gloaming Friday, junior Max Homa, one of the team captains, was polishing off his closing 68. (Fitting: During his freshman season, Homa was nicknamed ‘Final-round Max’ by coach Steve Desimone.) On his way to the clubhouse, Homa saw his best friend, teammate Pace Johnson, behind the ninth green. Informed that, yes, the Bears were in (T-4), that they were headed to match play for the first time in program history, Homa began his windup and gave Johnson such an emphatic high-five, it even required a recoil.

“I can’t tell you how excited I am,” Homa said, bounding down the stairs to celebrate with his teammates.

In a quiet moment afterward, when he finished bear-hugging teammates, coaches, close friends and perhaps even a few strangers, Homa added: “It was hard to fall asleep last night, and to wait until 1:20 to tee off was just brutal. From the first tee shot, it was a different kind of nervous. I almost felt sick. Knowing what was on the line, I didn’t want to let my team down.”

Why?

“Because this team is a bunch of grinders, and we deserve to be in the final eight,” he said. “I didn’t want it to end today. Not like this.”

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