Oklahoma State coach Alan Bratton won’t go as far as to proclaim the 2017-18 Cowboys as the greatest men’s college golf team of all time.
“A lot of people have asked me about where they rank as far as best team, and I always tell them you really can’t compare teams from different eras. It’s really impossible,” Bratton said.
“But … If someone is even asking the question, that’s quite a compliment.”
Oklahoma State won nine tournaments last season, including seven in a row and an NCAA regional title, before capturing both the stroke-play and match-play portions of the NCAA Championship. The Cowboys rolled in the championship match, posting a 5-0 sweep of Alabama to become the first top seed in 10 years of NCAA match play to win the title.
“Their team, wow,” Alabama coach Jay Seawell said last spring “… I have zero disappointment in my team. They just ran into a team that was really good. I tell our guys all the time, there’s no defensive coordinator in golf.”
Since the Golfweek/Sagarin rankings debuted for the 1999-2000 college golf season, no team had finished with a better power rating than Oklahoma State, which ended the year atop the rankings at 68.66 and with a 179-6-1 head-to-head record.
Arguably one of the deepest teams in recent memory, the Cowboys had seven players ranked 144th or better individually, including No. 5 Matt Wolff, No. 6 Viktor Hovland and No. 14 Zach Bauchou. (Two other players on the roster had won college events.)
The only knocks on last year’s Cowboys squad were that they finished second at the Big 12 Championship and took advantage of playing the NCAA Championship on their home course, Karsten Creek.
“They’re among probably the five best teams to ever play college golf,” said longtime Texas coach John Fields.
Last spring, after Oklahoma State had won its third consecutive event and fourth overall, Bauchou, a junior, asked what the school record was.
The answer: The 1985-86 Cowboys won 10 times in 16 events, though they finished second at the NCAA Championship.
With Golf Channel cameras following the team’s every move during the season for its documentary “Driven,” the Cowboys went out and broke that record, winning 11 total times if you count NCAA stroke play and match play as separate events.
“They embraced the target on their back as well as any team I’ve ever seen,” Bratton said. “High expectations were on us, and they didn’t shy away from them.”
But were they better than the Dave Williams-coached Houston teams of the 1950s and ‘60s? Or the Texas teams, featuring Ben Crenshaw and Tom Kite, that won back-to-back NCAA titles in 1971 and ’72? Or the Oklahoma State squads that won championships under current Cowboys athletic director Mike Holder?
Like Bratton said, there isn’t a metric to compare. But what about more recent teams?
Clemson won the 2003 NCAA title at Karsten Creek with a team that featured three players ranked ninth or better: D.J. Trahan (2), Jack Ferguson (5) and Matt Hendrix (9). The Tigers went 183-8-3 that season while playing the second-toughest schedule.
Alabama’s 2013 NCAA title team featured three players ranked sixth or better – Bobby Wyatt (3), Cory Whitsett (4) and Justin Thomas (6) – and won seven times, including SEC and regional titles. The Crimson Tide went 154-15-3 that year. The following year, Alabama went 163-6-2, won eight times, including NCAA, regional and conference titles, and had four top-25 players, led by Robby Shelton (2).
Oklahoma State had strong teams in 2006, ’09 and ’11, but only the 2006 squad won it all. Georgia had star-studded squads in 2007 and ’09, but those teams finished second and third at NCAAs, respectively.
And then there was the Cal team in 2013 that won an NCAA-modern-record 12 times. That squad featured five All-Americans, each player ranked in the top 20: Michael Kim (1), Michael Weaver (11), Joël Stalter (12), Max Homa (13) and Brandon Hagy (19). But the Bears, despite winning the NCAA stroke-play competition, fell in the semifinals of match play.
Walter Chun, Cal’s current coach and the assistant on that team, said he’d take those five guys against last year’s Oklahoma State lineup, but added that one could make a valid argument for either team.
“Everyone has their own opinion,” Chun said. “It’s like comparing Jordan to Kobe or Lebron, and Nicklaus to Tiger.”
Cal senior Collin Morikawa wasn’t on that Bears team in 2012-13, but he did compete against last season’s Cowboys.
“They were amazing,” Morikawa said. “I’d definitely put them up with that Cal team in 2013. But they came through and won the national championship, and at the end of the day that’s what’s going to define teams.”
Oklahoma State was set to receive their NCAA Championship rings during halftime of the Oklahoma State football game against Texas on Oct. 27. The clubhouse at Karsten Creek, already lined with trophies and photos of storied teams, is scheduled to undergo some remodeling to make room for the Cowboys’ accomplishments last season – there were quite a few of them.
Best team ever or not, last season’s Oklahoma State squad was worthy of every compliment. Gwk
(Note: This story appeared in the November 2018 issue of Golfweek.)