Match-play secret? Keeping your team together

Alabama senior Cory Whitsett laps it up as head coach Jay Seawell gets doused with water after the Crimson Tide defeated Oklahoma State for the NCAA Men's Division I Championship on Wednesday at Prairie Dunes Country Club in Hutchinson, Kan.

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HUTCHINSON, Kan. – For the second time in six years, since the NCAA Championship gave a major facelift to the season-ending finale, we have seen back-to-back winners. Augusta State won in 2010 at The Honors Course in Tennessee and followed it up with another victory in 2011 in Oklahoma at Karsten Creek.

This was not believed to be the path where this championship was headed when it was decided to introduce match play into the championship equation. The new format was expected to open the door for more programs to hold the trophy aloft on the 18th green. Stroke play had not produced a back-to-back winner since 1984-85, when Houston accomplished the feat.

So why have we now seen two teams win consecutive championships in such a short window of time using a format that was thought to give an edge to the underdogs?

“You have to get three points,” said Alabama head coach Jay Seawell, who went on to explain if you have three, or four, or even five pretty good players that it is still hard to do.

“Teams are only going to be able to do what we did if they stay with the same players. It’s really hard to reload and regroup. It takes years to build the chemistry that you need.”

SMU head coach Josh Gregory, who guided Augusta State to its back-to-back titles, agreed.

“We were very fortunate to have everyone back,” Gregory said. “You can see how much experience plays a part in it. For Alabama, it’s not new to them. When you have been there three straight years (as Alabama has), it’s a different way of thinking.”

Alabama came to Prairie Dunes with an experienced core and chemistry from a team that won it all last year and nearly won it all the year prior at Riviera, losing out to Texas. And oh yes, the Tide also added the national freshman of the year in Robby Shelton.

That’s an equation that should give a team a chance every time.

Coming into this season, seniors Bobby Wyatt, Cory Whitsett and Trey Mullinax were part of a team that had gone 5-1 in NCAA Championship match play. They lost a former national player of the year in Justin Thomas, who left after his sophomore year, but replaced him with Shelton, the best freshman in college golf.

“When Bobby and Cory decided to stay, which was a big deal, that kept us intact to be one of these types of teams this year,” Seawell said.

Augusta State rolled to its first national title in 2010 and that team returned all five players the next fall. This set the same sort of stage for the Jaguars as we have seen for the Crimson Tide.

“We did not think we could lose,” Gregory said.

Alabama assistant coach Mike McGraw supports that.

“If a team loves the format and gets comfortable with it, it’s easy for them to think they can win,” McGraw said.

That’s the been-there, done-that thing.

Something is working. The last three years we have seen No. 1 Texas, No. 2 Alabama and No. 1 Alabama win it all. Prior to that, Texas A&M won in 2009 as the No. 12 team, and Augusta State’s two victories came when the team was ranked No. 5 and No. 8, respectively.

We have yet to see the same team that finishes as the leader after 54 holes win the title. In fact, only twice has the team that led qualifying even advanced to the championship match.

“The championship has become harder to win, but more special to win,” Seawell said.

Special because of the head-to-head aspect brings the team together. You can have the best player in college golf, but he can only earn one point if he wins. The No. 5 player in a team’s lineup can have just as big an impact.

To win a championship in any sport, a lot has to happen. But, in golf there are so many variables that can’t be controlled. Weather, luck of the draw on your tee times. Over the span of seven days, so many things can happen.

In a sport such as basketball you may only have to get it going for a half, but in golf, to maintain that focus over six days and shift to a different format (match play) that requires a different mindset for three of those days, it’s easy to think that there would be room for upsets.

Six years ago, we all thought those upsets would take stage front and center. Even Seawell.

“It started off that maybe an underdog could do it, but I do think now the best teams are probably always going to gravitate to the top because the depth of a team is probably going to expose the non-depth of another team,” said Seawell.

In match play, the adage is that anything can happen. Perhaps that’s true. Anything can happen – even a team winning again and again.

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