It’s national title or bust for No. 1 Oklahoma State

Oklahoma State University Athletics/GWK Illustration

It’s national title or bust for No. 1 Oklahoma State

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It’s national title or bust for No. 1 Oklahoma State

It’s all lining up again.

Oklahoma State is No. 1 in the country and the team’s home course, Karsten Creek Golf Club, will play host to the NCAA Championship. That was the scenario when the Cowboys thrived during the 2010-11 season.

Of course, college golf aficionados remember that one didn’t turn out as planned for the Cowboys. Stunningly, that Oklahoma State squad was upset at home in the semifinals by eventual national champion Augusta State.

So Alan Bratton, then the associate head coach and now the head coach, is far from complacent with the No. 1 ranking.

“That doesn’t allow you to take any strokes off your score going forward,” Bratton said.

Still, there’s no doubt he’s enjoying this team’s run.

Oklahoma State University Athletics

Members of the Oklahoma State University golf team celebrate their victory in the Querencia Cabo Collegiate.  (Oklahoma State University Athletics)

Oklahoma State was the preseason No. 1 after finishing the 2016-17 campaign with a quarterfinal loss at the NCAA Championship and bringing in two prized freshmen (Matthew Wolff and Austin Eckroat). With expectations high for a deep and talented squad, especially with nationals at home, the Cowboys have exceeded them.

The top-ranked team in the country simply has been dominant. In eight events, Oklahoma State has seven wins. The squad boasts a run of six consecutive victories, and if you look at the Cowboys’ head-to-head record in competition this year, it’s a breathtaking 109-2. They’ve done all this against the nation’s second-toughest schedule.

Depth mixes with star power

The Cowboys are so deep they have Brendon Jelley (a former first-team All-Big 12 selection) and Stratton Nolen (a former All-American) out of the starting lineup. Starter Viktor Hovland says he’s had questions from some opposing players about qualifying.

“Kind of insinuating that we have a very deep team and it must be really hard to qualify,” Hovland, a sophomore, said.

Depth, by the way, does not mean this crew lacks individual star power. Wolff (No. 4), Hovland (No. 6) and Zach Bauchou (No. 12) are all ranked in the top 15. The Cowboys have five players ranked in the top 60, more than any other program.

Already there are murmurs about this potentially being one of the great teams in the history of college golf. But those within and outside Oklahoma State caution against that for now, as the most important parts of the season still remain.

That mindset comes from the top. Mike Holder, Oklahoma State’s athletic director, used to be the men’s head coach and led the Cowboys to eight national titles in his 32 seasons (1973-2005).

As Bauchou pointed out, Bratton has at times relayed a story about a past Big 12 Championship where the Holder-led Cowboys had the title locked down. When a player came to a drivable par 4, he wanted to lay up in order not to mess things up. Holder fired back, “What are you doing? Hit it up there and try to make birdie. We’re trying to win by more.”

Wolff noted that a similar statement was made in a recent 32-shot victory.

“We’re not here to just win, we’re here to dominate,” Wolff said.

Wolff may be one of the best drivers in college golf. His combination of power and accuracy enables an aggressive mindset.

At the Golf Club of Georgia Collegiate this fall, the second and eighth holes (both par 4s) played in the 350-yard range. Players for Georgia Tech, the host school, talked about how they never went for those greens. In eight attempts between a practice round and three tournament rounds, Wolff drove it on those greens five times.

Aggression and strategy pays off for Cowboys

“That’s an impressive display of driving the ball,” Bratton said.

Add on the course knowledge Bratton, a former co-national player of the year at Oklahoma State, imparts on his players, and it’s a deadly combination of aggression and strategy for the Cowboys.

Bratton thinks this is the deepest team he’s had since becoming head coach in 2013. And the Cowboys take depth seriously.

Players know how thin the margins are. Jelley, a senior, played as Oklahoma State’s No. 1 at the season-opening Carmel Cup, finished fourth among the Cowboys, got through a qualifier to start at the OFCC/Fighting Illini Invite, was penciled in for the Paintbrush Invitational (which was cancelled), failed to qualify for the Golf Club of Georgia Collegiate and hasn’t been in the starting lineup since.

But the reserves are a talented collection that remind the starters they can be replaced if they slip. Coaches make sure everyone is sharp. While five starters and two individuals competed at the Valspar Collegiate last week, the remaining three players on the roster (including Jelley) played near home at Oak Tree Country Club in Central Oklahoma’s Broncho Invitational.

All the team success is great, but getting that first national title in 12 years is the focus. How’s that looking?

“I think we’ve just kind of tapped into our potential,” Jelley said. “We haven’t played our best yet.” Gwk

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