Gooch's big putt helps Oklahoma St. to NCAA final
HUTCHINSON, Kan. – For Oklahoma State senior Talor Gooch, there was no question.
"Oh, it's the best," Gooch said of the 30-foot birdie putt he rolled in on the third extra hole, the par-4 12th, to win his semifinal match against Stanford freshman Maverick McNealy and help the Cowboys eliminate top-seeded Stanford, 3-2, Tuesday at Prairie Dunes Country Club.
"Pretty easy (choice) given the circumstances. I've made some good putts before I'm sure that could maybe compare, but at this stage and this time . . . nothing compares."
Another product of Gooch's heroics, as well as a match-clinching win by redshirt freshman Wyndham Clark: a date with Alabama in Wednesday's final match of the 2014 NCAA Championship, giving Oklahoma State a shot at its 11th national title and first since 2006.
PHOTOS: NCAA Championships (Semifinals)
View images from Tuesday's semifinal play between Alabama, LSU, Oklahoma State and Stanford at Prairie Dunes Country Club.
"You come to college wanting to win a national championship," Gooch said. "That's why we come to Oklahoma State, because Oklahoma State wins national championships. Especially for (senior) Ian (Davis) and I, we haven't won one yet, and if you don't win a national championship in four years at Oklahoma State, it's a disappointment."
Said Davis: "Tomorrow is going to be a special day."
While Wednesday certainly has the potential to be special, the theater Tuesday provided was unforgettable. It started on the front nine as Oklahoma State took and early lead. As the afternoon grew longer and the teams started to make the turn, the Cardinal fought back and pulled ahead.
With Cameron Wilson, the stroke-play medalist, giving Stanford the first point with a 4-and-2 victory over Davis, and Cowboys freshman Zachary Olsen closing out David Boote 3 and 2, the attention turned to Gooch's match.
Already in extra holes, Gooch was struggling to put away McNealy. Earlier in the match, Gooch made a big halve at the 15th, then took a 1-up lead by winning Nos. 16 and 17 with birdies. The birdie at the 16th came from about 20 feet and after making it, Gooch walked to the hole making the "money" gesture made popular by former Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel – "I'm a big Johnny Football fan. . . . His competitiveness, that's what I love so much about him," Gooch said.
Then at the par-4 18th, Gooch's tee shot found the right rough and his second shot went less than 100 yards, staying in the thick grass. McNealy made par to force extra holes.
Two straight halves with pars, at the par-3 10th and par-4 11th, sent the match to No. 12, where Gooch and McNealy both found the green in two shots. McNealy's ball sat inside of Gooch's at about 20 feet and on a similar line.
But while Gooch's putt fell, McNealy's ball didn't, missing just left.
"I saw him hit his putt and halfway there I said to myself, 'That looks pretty good,' and it was dead center," McNealy said. "I thought I had a very good chance to make mine and I hit it like I wanted to; it was just a little left."
When Gooch's putt fell at the 12th, there were load roars from the Oklahoma State faithful, so loud that Stanford junior Patrick Rodgers, leading in his match against Jordan Niebrugge, could hear them from the 16th green. Rodgers was awarded a 2-and-1 victory, but didn't get to finish his match.
"To be honest, it was a really sudden ending," Rodgers said. "I saw that leaderboard on 15 and I don't know if it was wrong, but it said that we had the lead in three matches, and I was really fired up. I felt like my match was the important, deciding one. To turn around there on 16 green and hear the roar . . . it was a total sudden ending."
Of course, Stanford's semifinal loss not only marked the end to Wilson's college career, but also that of Rodgers, who planned to turn professional after the NCAA Championship. His first pro start will come at the PGA Tour's Travelers Championship.
"I know it's going to be a challenge," said Rodgers, who finishes with 11 career collegiate victories, tying Tiger Woods for the school record. "Those guys are really good out there and they play some great golf, so I know I'm going to have to step up to that challenge."
Said Stanford head coach Conrad Ray: "It's tough to think that it's actually over now."
Not over, though, is the career of Gooch, one that's been filled with highs and lows.
The Midwest City, Okla., native started all 13 events as a freshman and won both of his matches at the 2011 NCAA Championship. But the Cowboys, the favorite that year at Karsten Creek, fell short playing their home course. A year later, Gooch was a part of a team that went winless and snapped a streak of 65 straight NCAA Championship appearances. And last year, the team made it back to the NCAA Championship only to miss out on match play and see coach Mike McGraw get fired shortly after.
"Each year, there's been somewhat of a pinnacle of either negativity or positivity," Gooch said.
Oklahoma State entered this season as one of the favorites to challenge the defending national champion Alabama. But Gooch's play in the fall left plenty to be desired. Still recovering from a back injury sustained during last summer's U.S. Amateur, Gooch notched just one top 10 in four fall starts, a T-5 at the team's fall finale, the Royal Oaks Intercollegiate.
"I think that (injury) kind of led into a little bit of a slow start in the fall, and I had to take a few weeks off and in between tournaments I couldn't really practice much," Gooch said. "Then at the end of the fall I played well in Dallas and it kind of led into the spring."
After a T-16 showing at the Amer Ari Invitational to kick off the spring, Gooch notched six top 10s in seven start leading up to the NCAA Championship. He was T-3 at the Big 12 Championship and T-2 at the NCAA Columbia (Mo.) Regional.
Then at Prairie Dunes, a course he played when the Cowboys won the 2011 Big 12 title, Gooch tied for 49th in stroke play. But he followed with two match-play victories leading off for Cowboys head coach Alan Bratton and can close out a perfect 5-0 NCAA match-play record Wednesday.
"It's nice to be in position to end my career on a positive note," Gooch said.
And should he do that Wednesday, it will be the biggest moment of his golf career. There will be no question.