Top teams outbattle brutal conditions to reach NCAA match play

Golfweek/Tracy Wilcox

Top teams outbattle brutal conditions to reach NCAA match play

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Top teams outbattle brutal conditions to reach NCAA match play

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SUGAR GROVE, Ill. – Mike Small, Illinois’ head coach, doesn’t mince words.

His team was struggling, potentially letting a fifth straight trip to match play at the NCAA Championship slip away. In front of a home crowd, no less.

On Rich Harvest Farms’ par-5 11th, he told Dylan Meyer to get his stuff together.

Michael Feagles had been 1 under on his round until he went from bunker to bunker to bunker at the par-3 13th for triple bogey. He then airmailed the green with 8-iron at the par-4 14th. Double bogey.

After Feagles tapped in, Small had a talk with him the entire way from 14 green to 15 tee. The message?

You’ve got to man up.

The vibe was slipping and the Illini needed a spark.

“We needed to be zapped back into it. We needed someone in our face,” Meyer said. “We can’t have someone babying us and telling us it’s all going to be OK.”

How’d that go? On a brutally windy Monday that saw scores skyrocket in the final round of stroke play at the NCAA Championship, Illinois actually moved up two spots to third despite a 16-over 304.

After trundling near the top-eight match-play cut prior to Small’s words, Illinois battled back. The final four holes, averaging 1.58 strokes over par Monday, couldn’t get Feagles. He followed his triple-double disaster with four gutsy closing pars.

Edoardo Lipparelli cemented the Illini’s spot in match play at the par-5 18th by draining an eagle putt from 25 feet that broke a good 3 feet left to right.

The Illini had taken control in conditions they love.

“On a day like this, we almost feel more in our comfort zone,” Feagles said. “It’s almost better than a perfect day.”

Monday was a brutal final test before match play.

There were 12 teams under par through 54 holes. By day’s end, there were just two (Vanderbilt, 13 under; Oklahoma, 1 under). How was one to advance in such conditions? For one, understand that confusion abounds. You hear about certain conditions on a hole, but matters might change drastically.

“There’s definitely an art to taking in the pieces of information and also paying attention to what’s going on right now,” said Chris Zambri, USC’s head coach.

Also: have a strong finishing kick. Ryan Gronlund did that for Oregon, birdieing his final four holes to help rocket the Ducks, who shot a startling 5-over 293, from 13th to a tie for fifth and a match-play spot.

UNLV, on the other hand, began the day in second and was fading fast when Taylor Montgomery stepped up to the par-4 17th, which averaged 4.61 on the day.

“I knew I needed to do something,” Montgomery said.

How about a 7-iron from 180 yards to 10 feet for a birdie and then a birdie at 18? That beautiful close got UNLV (24-over 312) in at 7 over, two shots ahead of ninth-place LSU.

But the Rebels simply copied USC. The Trojans were in the same free fall hours earlier, dropping toward the top-eight cut after starting the day in second.

Sean Crocker was pissed. He’d made back-to-back bogeys, the latest a three-putt from 20 feet at the par-3 16th.

The junior tends to get hot. So associate head coach Justin Silverstein, following Crocker nearly the entire round, let him walk on his own to 17 tee to reset. Crocker then roasted his drive 325 yards down the fairway.

Crocker had been asking Silverstein much of the round where USC stood, with his companion smartly fudging the numbers in the Trojans’ favor. This time, he told Crocker the truth. The Trojans were teetering toward the edge.

Crocker knew it was his time.

“He turned to me and said, ‘OK, I’m going to birdie the last two,’ ” Silverstein said.

A pitching wedge from 135 yards to 10 feet. Birdie. The next hole: Birdie.

The Trojans closed in 23-over 311, but at 6 over, the top-ranked team in the country was tied for fifth and into match play for the third straight year. (Baylor and Oklahoma State also moved on to match play.)

The final stroke-play test had to be difficult. But the survivors can say they manned up – and then some.

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