At NCAAs, match play upstages the medalist

Illinois' Thomas Pieters hits his tee shot at No. 15 during the Round 1 of the 2013 NCAA Championship at Capital City Club Crabapple Course.

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RankNameSchoolRating
1Patrick RodgersStanford  68.39 
2Robby SheltonAlabama  68.58 
3Ollie SchniederjansGA Tech  68.62 
4Cameron WilsonStanford  68.89 
5Joey GarberGeorgia  69.20 

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RankNameRatingEvents
1Alabama 68.96  12 
2Georgia Tech 69.63  12 
3Stanford 69.69  12 
4Oklahoma State 69.82  13 
5Georgia 69.83  12 

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MILTON. Ga. -- There is little doubt that the NCAA Championship is focused first and foremost on the team aspect of golf. When the national championship went through major renovations a few years ago, match play was added to showcase team play.

There still is an individual winner crowned at the end of stroke play, but it has become a sidebar story. That’s likely to be the case again this week at the Capital City Golf Club’s Crabapple Course.

Three of the last four individual champions have finished on the ninth hole and two of the four have completed play in the morning wave. Expectations for championship golf are a late-in-the-day finish on the 18th green. That’s not been the case at the NCAA finals of late.

A year ago at Rivera Country Club, Illinois’ Thomas Pieters left as the individual national champion. He returns this week to defend that title, but you would be hard pressed to find much mention of that.

Pieters, who has played 10 events this year as the defending NCAA champion, has gotten little attention, while Chattanooga’s Steven Fox, the reigning U.S. Amateur champion, has played in four PGA Tour events this spring and is teeing it up this week at the Memorial.

Why is it that the NCAA champion is in the shadow of the U.S. Amateur champ?

Television and promotion certainly play a role and the USGA has a lot of muscle. But many will point to the number of holes being played. If the NCAA Championship was 72 holes, many believe it would be recognized in higher regard. However, Illinois head coach Mike Small doesn’t see a problem with 54 holes.

“Most college events are three-day event events, this is a three-day event,” Small said. “I have had two of the last three win it and (Scott) Langley is on the PGA Tour now. That was no fluke.”

The topic that garnered the most attention last December at the Golf Coaches Association national convention was finding a way to get the individual portion of the NCAA Championship to 72 holes. NCAA committee members have been forced to address the growing concern that the individual championship has become lost during championship week.

“I have thought about it a lot and I don’t know why they are wanting to fix it,” Small said. “If they are trying to change it to get more publicity for the individual champion by going that fourth day, then I can see that point. If it is for TV, then it can make some sense because you have to try to grow college golf, but if they are trying to change it to try and get a true winner, then I think that is way out of line.”

For now, Pieters enters this week playing well. He won the Big Ten Conference Championship and tied for 10th place at the Fayettville Regional. He is ranked No. 46 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings.

“It’s a different year, it’s a new year,” Pieters said. “I made some swing changes after last year to get better and it took me awhile to get used to it. I am feeling good now and it should be a good week. There is no pressure, it’s my last tournament. Just go have fun.”

While the powers that be continue their search for a solution to individual-championship complaints, Pieters is trying to make this week more than a sidebar story.

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