CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – All of the teams that qualified for the NCAA Championship were already long gone by the time Western Carolina’s J.T. Poston played his final hole Saturday.
Fitting, because those other teams didn’t matter much to Poston anyway – he was playing the Chapel Hill regional here as an individual.
Poston began the final round at Finley Golf Course with a one-shot lead as he tried to play his way into the NCAA Championship, but a few stumbles midway through his day threatened to spoil his bid. He birdied the sixth hole (his 15th of the day), made a good up-and-down on 7 and dropped a shot on 8, so at 6 under for the tournament he knew he was right around the cut line for the spot that goes to the low individual on a non-qualifying team.
For the first time all day he wanted to know the situation and where he stood, and the answer from coach Bryant Odom was simple: We need a birdie here.
After his drive found the fairway, Poston hit his 8-iron to set up a 20-foot birdie try. A few weeks earlier, at the Southern Conference Championship, he sank a similar-length putt to win in a sudden-death playoff.
“I definitely drew on that experience,” he said, as he poured in the birdie putt to force a playoff with Lipscomb’s Dawson Armstrong (65), then won with a bogey on the second extra hole.
As a result, Poston, a six-time college winner, became the first player in school history to reach nationals.
“He knew what he had to do,” Odom said. “There’s only one task when you get here. He didn’t want to be the low individual; he wanted to win it.”
Well, Poston certainly will take a T-2 finish (two shots behind medalist Maverick McNealy), and a spot at Concession Golf Club. This was the third time that the 52nd-ranked Poston has played regionals as an individual, but his previous two trips he finished 38th.
“I forced it a little bit,” he said, “knowing that I had to finish in the top-3 or top-5 to have a chance. This year I tried to stay patient and treat it like any other tournament.”
Even if this tournament feels anything but a regular tournament.
In an event that is all about the team finish – the low five squads after 54 holes advance – Poston was all on his own. He rode shotgun in the team’s sprinter van that seats eight players. He had his own stall on the range. He had the last tee time each day. And he had a cheering section that consisted of about 10 close friends and family.
“Obviously we’d like to be here with our teammates,” Odom said, “but he knew his job and he went out and did it.”