LSU's Taylor holes deciding putt for Tigers' first NCAA title since 1955

LSU's Taylor holes deciding putt for Tigers' first NCAA title since 1955

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LSU's Taylor holes deciding putt for Tigers' first NCAA title since 1955

BRADENTON, Fla. – For the second consecutive day, Ben Taylor had a putt to earn the clinching point for LSU at the NCAA Championship. The only difference Wednesday is he actually got to hit it.

In a Tuesday semifinal match against Georgia, Taylor stuck a 6-iron to 4 feet at Concession Golf Club’s par-4 18th hole, but ended up picking up his ball marker after Georgia’s Zach Healy conceded. A day later, Taylor had an 8-footer for par to give LSU its first national title since 1955, and this time the putter came out of the bag.

“Yesterday was fun hitting that shot and I wanted to putt it, but having said that you’re always going to take the win,” Taylor said. “But today was special.”

As Taylor prepared for the biggest putt of his college career, LSU head coach Chuck Winstead, who walked with Taylor throughout match play, reminded his player that he had made putts like this before. Taylor remembered hitting nearly the exact putt in a practice round six days earlier.

Perfect line. Perfect stroke. Bottom of the cup.

The Tigers, who had lost in the NCAA semifinals to Alabama a year earlier, had come full circle, defeating USC, 4-1, and Taylor, a senior, had provided the exclamation point.

“It was a very special moment for me to end my college career, holing that putt to win a national championship,” said Taylor, who topped USC’s Bobby Gojuangco, 1 up, to go 3-0 in match play this week.

While it was LSU’s first national title, it was Taylor’s second. Three years ago, Taylor was a member of the Nova Southeastern team, coached by now LSU assistant Garrett Runion, that won the 2012 NCAA Division II Championship. Taylor received the Jack Nicklaus Award, given to Division II’s player of the year, that season as a freshman.

“I remember when he first came in his freshman year, he was pretty green and hadn’t been over to the states too often,” Runion said. ” We developed a pretty close bond together there.”

Later that year, Runion accepted his current position at LSU, and a year after that, Taylor followed his mentor and coach to Baton Rouge. LSU was Taylor’s first visit. He didn’t make any more.

“I had other visits lined up, but I just loved the place as soon as I saw it,” Taylor said. “It was a no-brainer, really.”

Said Taylor’s father, Phil Taylor: “I just wanted the best for him and his golf, and the step up to LSU has made a man out of a boy.”

Phil Taylor and his wife Susanne were at Concession to celebrate with their son. They had missed Nova’s championship victory in 2012 because, as Phil Taylor said, “He didn’t realize how big a deal it was.” They wouldn’t have missed Wednesday for the world. They followed Taylor’s match from the first tee on, then waited for him off the back of the 18th green as Taylor holed the clinching putt.

They watched as Taylor embraced his coach, followed by teammates Zach Wright and sophomore Brandon Pierce, who each went 3-0 in match play this week and took down USC’s top two players in Sean Crocker and Rico Hoey, respectively, to earn the first two points for LSU.

Then, Taylor went straight to his parents.

“I actually couldn’t see them half of the back nine because there were so many people watching and they kind of got lost in the crowd,” Taylor said. “I managed to find them at the end and give them a hug, and it was quite emotional really. They’ve been the ones that have supported me throughout not just college but my life, so to win that for them and to have them see me hole the winning putt was very, very special.”

The Taylors weren’t the only ones hugging. Stewart Jolly, LSU’s other senior, was playing in the final match of the day. He was credited with a 1-up loss to Eric Sugimoto, a loss that capped, by his own admission, a poor individual NCAA showing. But Jolly didn’t care; he weaved through the crowd, surprising his teammates with bear hugs.

“It’s unbelievable,” Jolly said during the post-match rush. “I’m out there fighting, playing for my brothers. Couldn’t be happier right now.”

Like Taylor, Jolly fell in love with LSU as a recruit. Jolly grew up in Birmingham, Ala., and his mother went to Alabama. But there was just something about the thought of being a Tiger.

“It’s been the greatest four years of my life,” Jolly said, “and this is the cherry on top.”

Jolly will remain amateur for the summer, unless he qualifies for the U.S. Open. He plans on playing a full amateur schedule with stops at the Sunnehanna Amateur, Northeast Amateur, Southern Amateur, Western Amateur and, hopefully, the U.S. Amateur. Taylor will also stay an amateur, but he will play his summer golf across the pond, starting with the British Amateur later this month and ideally ending with the Walker Cup. Taylor is a candidate to make the GB&I squad.

“If he could make the Walker Cup team, that would be the pinnacle of his amateur career,” Phil Taylor said.

Of course, the best part of Taylor’s collegiate career so far came Wednesday at Concession. Division II titles are nice, but you could tell how much this meant to Taylor as he stood with his teammates in front of the television cameras, family and friends of the LSU team showering them with purple and gold beads.

With the national championship trophy in his hands, Taylor had the look of satisfaction. He knew he had made the right decision in signing with LSU. This is what he came for.

“I couldn’t be more grateful for what Chuck and Garrett have done for me,” Taylor said, “and I couldn’t be more happy with the choice I made to go there.”

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