NCAA match play provides a stage unlike any other

California's Max Homa, Michael Kim and Michael Weaver cheer on Brandon Hagy as he hits his second shot to four feet at No. 18 during the quarterfinals of match play at the 2013 NCAA Championship at Capital City Club Crabapple Course.

California's Max Homa, Michael Kim and Michael Weaver cheer on Brandon Hagy as he hits his second shot to four feet at No. 18 during the quarterfinals of match play at the 2013 NCAA Championship at Capital City Club Crabapple Course.

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RankNameRatingEvents
1Alabama 68.92 
2Georgia 69.62 
3Georgia Tech 69.62 
4Oklahoma State 69.72  10 
5California 69.81  11 

MILTON, Ga. – The Final Fore is set with a cast of characters that most would agree fits the final two days of the NCAA Championship very well.

Left chasing a national title are college golf’s two heavyweights: top-ranked California and No. 2 Alabama are on opposite sides of the bracket, eyeing a Sunday final. That’s what most want to see: No. 1 vs. No. 2 to decide it all.

Before that can happen, Cal will have to get past Illinois, which is playing the underdog role. Alabama will have to get past Georgia Tech, which happens to be the local favorite here at Capital City Club’s Crabapple course.

If today was any indication of what to expect, it’s going to be good. The intensity level was raised a few notches, if not more. Arizona State head coach Tim Mickelson tweeted early in his round: “Holy crap this Match Play format is Fun!”

Indeed it is fun for all involved and exciting to watch, but fun is just the beginning. In all my years around college golf, the atmosphere is unlike any day that you witness, anywhere.

“There is such a finality to it,” California head coach Steve Desimone said.

That is the best way to describe it.

Georgia Tech head coach Bruce Heppler said: “You have a putt to win, lose or halve on every hole, and there is nothing like it. It’s stressful.”

In the final round of a stroke-play event, whether it is the Jerry Pate Intercollegiate or the Big 12 Conference Championship, it just ends. A team wins, a team finishes second and blah, blah, blah. But, today in the opening round of match play, defeating the other team and having a tee time the next day has an entirely different meaning and feeling.

We certainly expect more of the above during the next two days. The intensity definitely will rise with the stakes being greater over the weekend.

And we must not look too far ahead. Last year, top-ranked Texas and No. 2 Alabama met in the final at Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades, Calif., with Texas winning. Illinois and Georgia Tech will be very tough opponents.

For California, the hurdle will be Illinois. We might need to see if Cinderella’s shoe fits sophomore Alex Burge. His score did not count once in regional play when he posted rounds of 84-81-81 in the Fayetteville Regional. This week, playing from the No. 5 position and ranked No. 511 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings, Burge posted a 69 on the final day of stroke-play qualifying – his first sub-70 score of the year. On Friday, he defeated Cody Gribble 3 and 2. Gribble, who is ranked No. 17, went 3-0 last year at Riviera and was a key factor in the Longhorns' victory.

“He didn’t have a good regional, but he brings such a good attitude, demeanor and vibe and that’s healthy for a team,” Illinois head coach Mike Small said of Burge. “I think in two years you are going to see a pretty good player.”

If Illinois upsets California, it may be because Burge has arrived a little early. Beating California in stroke play is almost impossible. Just three teams managed to do it during the entire year. But, it goes from almost not possible to very possible in a match-play format. Arizona State was as close as you can come Friday in the opening round. The Sun Devils had lost to California seven times this year, by an average of 39.7 strokes per tournament. Friday, they lost 3-2.

“Cal’s had the best season I can ever remember,” Small said. “They have all the pressure on them.”

It would be a huge upset even in match play. All five California players ranked inside the top 25; Illinois' best player is No. 46.

If Alabama is to return to the national-championship match Sunday, the Tide might have to overcome more than just a talented group of Yellow Jackets. They will have to deal with large home crowd. Georgia Tech fans were clearly the largest base of fans walking the grounds today.

“It was awesome, and today was a work day," Heppler said. "I think there will be more (fans) tomorrow."

Any other year, the talk would be about Alabama, but California has put the Crimson Tide in its shadow. Alabama has won seven times in 11 starts, and its only loss this spring came to California at the Southern Highlands Collegiate Masters.

So, here we are, two days left in the college season. It’s California and Illinois off early, and then Georgia Tech and Alabama immediately following. The pieces to this puzzle are falling into place.

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