Middle of NCAA pack has advantage on Day 3
PHOTOS: NCAA Championship (Round 2)
View images of Round 2 at the Men's NCAA Championship at Capital City Club Crabapple Course near Atlanta, GA.
MILTON, Ga. Sure, there is focus on the top of the leaderboard during the first few days at the NCAA Championship, but let’s not kid ourselves. Most of the attention is looking a little farther down in the team standings.
The position on the leaderboard that will be of most interest on Thursday afternoon is No. 8. That is the cutoff to advance to the match-play portion of this championship. The top eight teams will begin match play Friday.
It's all about positioning on the final day of stroke play, which is why those numbers are important. The bottom 15 teams will get to play the final round of stroke-play qualifying in the morning wave, and conditions typically are better in the morning as opposed to the afternoon. The Capital City Club's Crabapple Course tends to dry out and firm up as the day progresses.
“Any time you would rather be the 16 in a tournament than 15, that would tell you something does not make sense,” Georgia Tech head coach Bruce Heppler said.
Consider this: Through 36 holes, players in the morning wave are averaging 281.0 while the afternoon wave is 284.2.
If Thursday was the final round of the tournament, then having the leaders play late would be the norm. But with match play in the mix, the result of playing well through 36 holes is a late tee time. That leaves the bottom 15 teams with morning tee times, and they will likely play on better greens and in less wind.
“I completely disagree with this format,” Heppler said. “Originally we had it right.”
Heppler is referring to the 2009 championship, the first year of this format, when teams in the Nos. 16-30 spots on the leaderboard played in the afternoon wave while the top half of the field was off site, enjoying dinner before the awards banquet. That afternoon was titled the “death march,” because the teams on the course ended up playing for no purpose on the way to missing the cut into match play. That format changed for the 2010 championship, and the new method remains this week.
A 36-hole cut might solve this issue, but more simply, the teams that played well over 36 holes should be rewarded with a morning tee time, as at Inverness in 2009.
“The tournament is not over," Heppler said. "It’s a qualifier.”
The first part of this championship is simply about finding a spot in match play. In four years of using match play to decide the national champion, the stroke-play leader has yet to win the match play. Texas won from the No. 3 seed last year. Augusta State’s two victories came from the Nos. 7 (2011) and 6 spots (2010). Texas A&M won as the No. 7 seed in the first year of this format.
The stage is now set for great theater. The third round of championship week has proved to be one of the most exciting days of the year in college golf.
How far back is too far back? What is a doable number on the par-70, 7,319-yard Crabapple Course?
We have seen teams go very low through two rounds. California had it to 14 under at one point, only to finish at 8 under. TCU reached 12 under and finished at 8 under.
If a team from back in the pack is going to post a low number, it might need to ride a low round. Arizona State did that in Round 1 when freshman Jon Rahm shot 9-under 61 to help the Sun Devils to 10 under and the lead. Arkansas rallied behind Nicolas Echavarria's second-round 6-under 64, as did TCU thanks to Julien Brun’s 64.
“A lot of it depends on your tee time and wind, but a low number can be out there,” New Mexico head coach Glen Millican said.
New Mexico, ranked No. 5, is one of those teams that could benefit from a morning tee time after not playing its best golf early in the championship.
Another team that could take advantage of playing in the morning is UCLA. The Bruins, ranked No. 4, certainly have the firepower to go low and could post a strong number early.
Regardless of tee times, 14 teams stand within 10 shots of eighth place, and that will keep followers glued to the middle of the leaderboard on Thursday.