STILLWATER, Okla. – If you have been around college golf long enough to witness a sudden-death team playoff, then you would probably agree it is one of the most exciting things you have seen in the sport.
Yesterday was a chance for anyone at Karsten Creek – or anyone watching on television – to have that chance. That didn’t happen, and in my opinion, it was a blown opportunity.
The NCAA Division I golf championships have been building momentum since the Golf Channel began televising the men’s finals in 2014 and the women’s finals in 2015. It’s been great for the women especially, considering the drama that unfolded in 2015 and ’16. The women’s game is getting exposure like it never has before.
After all, wasn’t that the goal? Using match play to decide a champion, and televising it, was seen as the ultimate prize for the sport, but late Monday evening, it could have been so much more.
A playoff was needed to break a tie between Arizona and Baylor for the final spot in the match-play bracket, but the someone picked the wrong one. The format used was what we are used to seeing when three or more teams are tied. It’s what we call a shotgun playoff, and it requires the five players from each team to start on different holes.
I get what was trying to be done here. The shotgun format figures to be faster and with the final round beginning later in the day, the window to get finished is tight. The sacrifice was not worth it, though.
What should have been used here to decide the eighth and final match-play team is the format we are used to seeing when two teams are required to break a tie. In that format, three players from Arizona would be paired with two players from Baylor in the first group. The remaining players from both teams would be sent off in the next group, creating two fivesomes that would play the same hole with the low four scores counting.
Baylor coach Jay Goble, along with other coaches in the field, had been sent an e-mail Monday morning describing what would take place if a team tie occurred. It described the shotgun format, which was not the designated for a two-team tie in past years.
“I did not look at it,” Goble said. “I honestly thought, ‘Why did they send that?’ I was expecting it to be the old-school way.”
Arizona coach Laura Ianello did read the e-mail.
“I thought it was odd, but you just do what you are told here,” she said.
Not odd, just not the best way to do it.
Why? Because it is a tough format – and even a bad format for players, coaches and people here on site. Players and coaches have no idea where they stand as opposed to the traditional playoff format, where you watch every shot.
Consider what fans missed out on. Hall of Fame coach Rick LaRose lived a team playoff at this championship (when it was 72 holes of stroke play) over 20 years ago and still calls it “the most exciting moment I can remember watching in college golf.”
LaRose was the head coach at Arizona in 1996 when he watched Marisa Baena hole an 8-iron from 147 yards to guide her team to a playoff victory over San Jose State at the national championship.
LaRose, who went on to coach the men’s team, said he would have preferred to see Monday’s drama unfold the old-fashioned way.
“It’s far more exciting and far more pressure, and you and the players get to see what’s going on,” he said.
He also agrees he was not a fan of what he watched from his home on television.
“I was not crazy about that and it was hard to follow,” he said.
The teams involved found it equally confusing.
“We finished the hole and I did not know if we won or lost,” Goble said. “The camera guy is the one that told me we had tied.”
On the first extra hole, putting for par after Amy Lee’s putt was on a very similar line and distance as Arizona’s Sandra Nordass, Lee’s stroke would show Nordaas the line. Had Goble known that’s Lee’s score was not going to count, the situation might have unfolded differently.
“I could have told Amy pick up because we had four pars, but I had no idea,” Goble said.
Nordaas would just miss the long birdie attempt, resulting in another playoff hole with darkness setting in.
“It was interesting. I wasn’t expecting all the players to be so spread out on the golf course,” Ianello said. “That makes it impossible to coach.”
It also made it impossible for anyone taking place in the action to know what was going on. As the second hole unfolded, it became clear Arizona would win, and again Ianello was in the dark.
“I had no idea what was going on. I was getting texts from people telling me good job, good luck tomorrow,” Ianello said.
Goble is still not sure what exactly happened.
“Even now I still don’t know what scores we got,” he said.
In the end, Arizona won and advanced as the No. 8 seed, but that was the only thing that was easy to understand for those involved.
“It was very, very confusing. I will say that,” Ianello said.