BRADENTON, Fla. – The only untidy aspect of LSU’s victory over Southern Cal on Wednesday was the celebration.
Brandon Pierce right here, Zach Wright over there … and Ben Taylor, up on 18 with nary a teammate in sight, closing out this NCAA Championship.
Once they met up behind 17 and checked live scoring on their phones, Pierce and Wright decided to sprint toward the final green to watch the clinching putt. They slowed down at the 150-yard mark, long enough for the TV cameramen to catch up, and when Taylor dropped his 8-footer for par, they took off running again, faster now, screaming and throwing up their hands and mobbing their All-American senior who sealed the 4-1 victory.
“Right now this means everything to me,” Wright said. “We came here on a mission to try to win this.”
And to think: The Tigers almost didn’t even make it to Concession.
Frustrated by the bumpy greens at The Course at Yale, LSU was 11 shots off the fifth-place cut line entering the final round of the regional tournament.
The night before that round, LSU coach Chuck Winstead gathered his players and showed them examples of how previous teams had snuck into NCAAs, how it was possible, how they just had to believe.
“We started getting our minds wrapped around that we could actually make the comeback,” senior Stewart Jolly said.
Even with the pep talk, the outcome looked grim – the deficit swelled to 14 shots at one point in the survive-and-advance tournament. But after a furious back-nine rally, all five starters ended up shooting in the 60s, none better than Taylor and Pierce, who carded matching 65s.
That it was Pierce who delivered that day was only fitting.
Last spring, when doctors discovered a stress fracture in his back that would force him out of competition for eight months, he didn’t go into hiding or distance himself from the team. No, he pulled closer. He attended every practice, flying around in a golf cart to encourage his teammates. He waited at the golf house until the Tigers returned home from an away tournament. And on the eve of a big event, he tapped out one-page notes to each of his brothers and left them in their locker, hoping to provide a little inspiration.
Pierce shot 29 on his final nine holes that day in New Haven. The Tigers moved on to nationals by a single stroke.
Turns out LSU’s entry into the NCAA Championship was more riveting than its exit.
In winning the first four matches Wednesday, the Tigers trailed for only a total of eight holes, and never by more than a one-hole deficit. It was a thoroughly dominant performance by a team with no weaknesses in its lineup.
“They’re all interchangeable,” Winstead said of his five starters.
LSU’s total team effort capped a long week when many of the favorites fell short.
No. 1-ranked Florida State didn’t even advance to match play. Texas, the hottest team in the country with six wins in its last seven starts, bowed out in the quarterfinals. Illinois, which won an NCAA-best eight times this season, looked flat in the semis.
Left standing was No. 9 LSU and No. 13 USC – teams that likely would have combined for more than seven wins this season if they didn’t play such a grueling schedule.
Nevertheless, it was the first time since 2009 – the first year of NCAA match play – that the championship match did not feature at least one finalist with a top-5 national ranking.
A surprise, maybe, but there’s never been more parity in college golf, the margin of error at a brutal golf course like Concession is razor-thin, and 18-hole match play is a shortened game that doesn’t always determine the best champion.
That background might help soften the blow for many of the top seeds, but one thing was still abundantly clear Wednesday: LSU was the most deserving team after enduring eight rounds in seven days here.
“They’re really good,” USC’s Sean Crocker said. “They just beat us today.”
And they didn’t waste any time in the championship, either, with the top three in the lineup – Pierce (2 and 1), Taylor (1 up) and Wright (3 and 2) – all winning their final match to stomp out any potential upset.
Not bad for a group that didn’t even know the tournament format until last week, a few hours before their first-round tee time.
Winstead said he only learned that the schedule was 72 holes of stroke play followed by three rounds of match play during the coaches’ meeting Thursday night. He thought it was a 54-hole qualifier, just like in 2014.
“At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter,” he said. “If you don’t play great, you’re not going to be around, whether you play 54, 72, 36 or 108.”
A year ago at Prairie Dunes, the Tigers were ecstatic just to reach NCAA match play. They eventually lost to Alabama in the semifinals. This year, they had bigger goals, even after losing Smylie Kaufman, who recently won on the Web.com Tour, and Curtis Thompson, one of Lexi’s long-hitting brothers.
“Last year it was kind of a shock,” said Wright, who extended his NCAA match-play record to 5-0. “We weren’t prepared for it. This year we were mentally there."
Three of LSU’s players are ranked inside the top 65 nationally. The other two are established seniors: Jolly, ranked 123rd, is a former All-American, while Taylor, ranked 137th, added an NCAA title to the national championship he won at Division II Nova Southeastern.
“We don’t have a superstar,” Winstead said.
But the Tigers might have a couple of ’em next season.
Pierce sure looks like one, after he broke David Toms’ LSU single-season scoring record (71.0) in seven starts this spring. Yes, the Tigers lose the two seniors, but they also will welcome top-10 prospects Sam Burns (No. 1) and Nathan Jeansonne (No. 7) in addition to Luis Gagne. More studs are expected to arrive in Baton Rouge beginning in fall 2016.
The perception of LSU is changing, from a middling team ranked outside the top 80 when Winstead took over in 2005, to an emerging threat with NCAA champion John Peterson at the top, to now a powerhouse-in-waiting with a bevy of hungry recruits.
“When it’s going the wrong way, you have to hold on to the train a long time just to get it to stop,” Winstead said. “Just hold on, hold on, until you get it to stop. Then you have to turn it around. And then it takes a while to build speed.”
After this NCAA title, it’s full speed ahead.