The 2019 NCAA Championships at Blessings Golf Club in Fayetteville, Ark., were my first experience at college golf’s season finale.
What a time to join the college golf beat.
This year’s tournaments featured storybook endings for a pair of seniors on the women’s side, a March Madness Cinderella-esque run to match play and a surprising loss for one of the best teams in college golf history on the men’s side.
After taking a week to reflect on my 12 days at Blessings, here’s what I learned from my first NCAA Championships.
Every team needs a spark
It’s no secret that upperclassmen leadership and experience is important, especially with match play and knowing how to handle adversity. We saw that with men’s national champion Stanford and its senior duo of Brandon Wu and Isaiah Salinda, who both went a perfect 3-0 in match play.
But then there are players like Daulet Tuleubayev, the freshman hero who played the semifinal match with a broken driver and then hit the clinching putt on the 18th green to send the Cardinal to the final match.
On the women’s side, Wake Forest made it to the final against Duke thanks to a well-rounded team effort. While all eyes were on inaugural Augusta National Women’s Amateur champion and senior Jennifer Kupcho, the Demon Deacons were led by sophomore Emilia Migliaccio’s 3-0 record and an enthusiastic 2-0-1 performance from vibrant junior Siyun “Swing” Liu.
While normally an individual game, it truly is remarkable to see the team aspect come in to play at the NCAA Championship, especially when the most talented team doesn’t always win.
Match play mayhem
How’s that for a segue?
Anything can happen in match play, and the men’s quarterfinals and semifinals were a perfect example.
The 2018-19 Oklahoma State men’s golf team will go down as one of the best teams in college golf history, and the Cowboys didn’t even advance to the match play final.
The 11-time national champion Cowboys got bounced in the semifinals by a young and fun Texas group that boasted three freshman whose skills transcend their age. Oklahoma State earned the match play No. 1 seed by finishing the stroke play segment at 16-under par, 31 shots clear of second place Vanderbilt (+15). The Pokes won six tournaments this season and never finished worse than fourth. In nine of their 13 events, a Cowboy was an individual medalist, with individual national champion and sophomore sensation Matthew Wolff earning six of those wins.
What happened? Texas never backed down, and Oklahoma State senior Zach Bauchou missed a four-foot putt that he makes nine times out of 10.
What happened? Match play.
Earlier in the quarterfinals, we saw one of the greatest individual comebacks since the NCAA’s move to match play for the men in 2009.
The bout between Wake Forest’s Eugenio Chacarra and Stanford’s Salinda was the perfect description of what can happen in match play. After starting on the back nine, Chacarra was 4-up at the turn. Salinda, a senior, wasn’t the least-bit fazed, winning the next six holes to completely flip the match and take a 2-up lead. Salinda never looked back, ultimately winning 3&1.
Say what you will about the best team not winning. I understand the arguments that it’s unfair to seed a team by one style of competition and decide the champion with another. Would Oklahoma State be deserving of a national title had it not been for match play? Absolutely. That said, there’s something to be said for the excitement match play brings, and I can’t wait for next season.
Women outshine men
The men had bigger crowds, largely thanks to the Oklahoma State faithful who made the trip to Fayetteville, but spectators missed out on the women’s play the week prior.
Arkansas’ very own Maria Fassi, who displayed incredible sportsmanship while falling short at the ANWA, had her “Fassi Posse” on hand as she won the individual national title but crowds were scarce for match play. Maybe it was the inclement weather that kept fans from Blessings, but they missed quite a show.
Duke senior Virginia Elena Carta, who won the individual title as a freshman, finished the stroke play segment T-43 at 11-over par and last compared to her four teammates. She turned it up for match play, finishing the week 2-1, including a 24-hole marathon in the quarterfinals against Stanford’s Ziyi Wang that tied an NCAA record for longest match.
Remember when I talked about a well-rounded team? Carta was the team’s lone senior. Junior Ana Belac was a perfect 3-0. Freshman Gina Kim was 2-1. Sophomores Jaravee Boonchant and Miranda Wang entered the final match winless, but earned crucial points when it mattered most.
Arizona’s Haley Moore was the hero once again for the Wildcats. Moore birdied three of the last four holes to oust USC in the quarterfinals, the top-ranked team in the country, and keep Arizona’s dream of winning a second straight NCAA title alive.
In the all-ACC final match between Duke and Wake Forest, three of the five matches went to a playoff, with the Blue Devils coming away with their seventh national title.
This is in no way a shot at Stanford or any of the other men who competed, but you have to give credit where credit is due: the women stole the show at Blessings.
Will that trend continue the next three years as the NCAA Championships move to Grayhawk Golf Club in Scottsdale, Ariz.? I don’t know, but I can’t wait to find out.