Changes recommended for NCAA individual event


MILTON, Ga. – Change is coming soon to the NCAA Championship, or so we can hope.

No longer will the individual champion here be a morning finisher, or a 10-tee starter. No longer will it be a secondary storyline.

Since 2009, when match play was instituted at NCAAs, the individual champion has been rendered a mere footnote. That’s a shame too, for there is an impressive list of recent winners, from Matt Hill and Scott Langley, to John Peterson and Thomas Pieters.

Well, the NCAA Championship Committee recently made a recommendation to the Sports Management Cabinet: Bring back 72 holes of stroke play.

That’s the way it used to be, remember, pre-2009, and it seemed to work – Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods and Luke Donald are among the notable winners in this event’s illustrious history.

Of course, such a change would cause a drastic shakeup at NCAAs, which next year will be broadcast on Golf Channel.

Currently, there is a 54-hole stroke-play qualifier that determines both the individual champion and the top eight teams that advance to match play. The quarterfinal matches begin Friday, followed by the semifinals on Saturday and the finals on Sunday.

The committee has recommended, however, that the stroke-play qualifier run Friday through Sunday, then cut to the low eight teams.

Then, on Monday – the first day of TV coverage – the low 40 individuals and ties would compete in the fourth and final round of stroke play to determine the individual champion. Those individuals on an advancing team who were not in the top 40 would essentially have a day off.

On Tuesday, the top eight teams would square off in the quarterfinal matches, followed by the semis, with the finals to be held Wednesday. The cabinet could approval this proposal in two weeks, with the new format in place for the 2014 NCAAs at Prairie Dunes.

“The NCAA Championship should be four rounds,” Cal coach Steve Desimone. “It’s the best amateur event in the world, and we’re shortchanging that. We had the best tournament in the world for amateur and college golf, and we don’t have the tournament that we once had.”

No doubt, a 72-hole tournament adds credibility to this event. College teams generally play two-day, 54-hole tournaments during the season, but only because of time constraints. Every significant amateur event is four rounds.

“If it’s going to be a major, it gives it a chance to get even more credibility,” Alabama coach Jay Seawell said. “This is probably the greatest amateur event in the world. The more holes you play, the better player is going to come forward.”

Some coaches contend that the current system is unfair for players who are on competitive teams.

After all, the third round at NCAAs is arguably the most stressful day of the college golf season. The top eight teams jockey for position. The individuals – sometimes unknowingly – chase the individual title.

Those players on the top eight teams have a disadvantage, however. Their burden is twofold: They’re trying to win the individual title, yes, but they also need to play conservatively enough to keep their team in the race for one of the coveted eight spots. Meanwhile, a player on a non-contending team can freewheel.

That’s been the case in recent years.

Three of the last four individual winners have begun their third and final round on the 10th hole. Half of the four finished in the morning wave. Buzzkill.

“This (proposal),” Seawell said, “would alleviate one of those pressures.”

The proposed plan still isn’t perfect, at least to some coaches.

Most notably, the prospect of having both the quarterfinal and semifinal matches on the same day is a daunting prospect. (Stretch the event a day longer, however, and then it’s an eight-day grind, including the practice round.) Said Seawell: “I think the buildup each day and night for the kids is good.”

And, yes, the fact that match play even determines the team champion still bothers Desimone.

Only once since 2009 has the No. 1-ranked team in the country left NCAAs with the trophy. That was last year’s Texas squad, with Jordan Spieth leading the way.

This season, No. 1 Cal has won 11 of its 13 starts to set the modern-day NCAA record for most victories in a season. But with the match-play final, the distinct possibility exists that the Golden Bears could return to Berkeley with the No. 1 overall seed but not a title to show for it.

“The ultimate goal should be to identify the best team in college golf, and I don’t know that any team thinks we’re doing that right now,” Desimone said. “One day of match play can erase an incredible season. Do I think that’s fair? No. No one in their right mind would say that’s fair.”

That discussion – a significant one, it should be noted – has been tabled, at least for another year.

Now, the NCAA appears ready to shine the spotlight back on the individual champion. Compared to what is currently in place – 54 holes, a secondary storyline – that’s a promising step.