Despite drawbacks, 72 holes validates NCAA champ

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Back in 2009, a few college coaches were hustling to catch up to their team when they squinted and saw a small crowd gathered around the ninth green at Inverness Golf Club. Off in the distance was N.C. State’s Matt Hill, putting the finishing touches on one of the most dominating seasons in recent memory.

Hill had just won the NCAA Championship. It was his eighth victory of the season. It was a crowning achievement. And the coaches kept walking.

An overlooked winner? Well, it won’t happen this year. The individual champion will be impossible to miss next Monday at Prairie Dunes.

Responding to “input from college coaches nationwide,” the NCAA announced last year that the 2014 finals will introduce a fourth and final round of stroke play in addition to the match-play team championship.

Above all, the move to 72 holes legitimizes the individual championship and potentially positions the event to someday receive a Masters berth.

Few disagree with the premise that 72 holes is a better way to determine the winner. After all, it’s the standard in championship golf, and elite players tend to distinguish themselves the longer they compete.

Not that recent NCAA champions have been unworthy, of course: Since 2009, the roll call of 54-hole winners includes Hill, Scott Langley, John Peterson, Thomas Pieters and Max Homa. Just last weekend, Pieters lost in a playoff on the European Tour and Homa closed with 63 to win a Web.com Tour event. There are no fluke winners here.

Alas, on college golf’s biggest stage, those wins were both overshadowed and anticlimactic.

For years, the individual title has served as the undercard to the race for match play. The pairings for the third and final round of stroke-play qualifying were based on the team standings, not individuals. So, as it turned out, the medalists in 2009, 2010 and 2012 began their final round on the back nine, because their team was out of contention. In 2011, Peterson had to wait six hours to find out whether he had won. Buzzkill.

That said, as much as coaches pushed for this change, for some of the best amateurs in the world to be recognized, there are potential drawbacks to this new 72-hole format – all of which figures to make next Monday’s televised event an intriguing experiment.

First, let’s start with the basics. The three-round qualifier for match play will be held Friday-Sunday. After three rounds, the field is cut to the low eight teams for the match-play bracket, but – new this year – also the low 40 and ties individually. Those players then will compete in the final round Monday, with Golf Channel cameras rolling.

What left many coaches unsatisfied, however, was the condensed match-play schedule. Because of the additional day of stroke play, the quarterfinals and semifinals are now squeezed into one day (Tuesday), with the two-team finals on Wednesday.

Yes, college golfers are used to playing 36 holes in one day – that’s the first-day format for most regular-season tournaments – but never when the stakes are this high. Even the NCAA tournament committee is aware of the potential ramifications.

“I’m not going to suggest that the stress and the moment isn’t greater (than regular 36-hole days). It certainly is,” said Mike Carter, chairman of the NCAA golf committee. “But this is an opportunity to learn how to manage those emotions and learn how to deal with that stress.”

As we’ve seen in the past, however, it oftentimes is difficult for the five players to sustain the momentum of a huge upset. In 2009, No. 2-ranked Georgia knocked off No. 1 Oklahoma State in the first round of match play. For the Bulldogs, it felt like they’d won the championship. But a few hours later, their energy was sapped and they lost to an inferior Arkansas team in the semis. Each match is so emotional, so intense, so draining, there often isn’t much left for the afternoon.

“That 36-hole day is going to be brutal,” said Cal coach Steve Desimone. “No doubt some of these players (not in the individual championship) are going to be able to recharge their batteries and rest while some of the best players keep going. I can see where that can be a great equalizer.”

Said SMU coach Josh Gregory, who led Augusta State to back-to-back national titles in 2010-11: “It’s the worst change made in college golf in a long time. You’re absolutely worn out after each match. You need the rest of that day to detox, rest and recover.”

Ask players which championship they covet most, and the answer is almost unanimous: the team title. They have the rest of their professional lives to pursue individual accolades. They’re part of a team only once.  

“They’re trying to be a house divided,” Alabama coach Jay Seawell said. “They’re trying to create high priority on the individual champion and high priority on the team champion, and they don’t go together. Never have, never will. Until we get that, we’re always going to be just missing.”

Several coaches also expressed concern about the potential for withdrawals on Monday. The top 15 finishers receive All-American status, but if an advancing team has a player plodding along in 35th place, what’s stopping that kid from pulling out of the event, resting and working on his game for match play? One coach joked there might be an epidemic that day of back tweaks, wrist sprains and flu-like symptoms.

Carter, though, said he wasn’t concerned. “This is all about the student-athlete experience,” he said. “This is an opportunity to play for themselves, for their family, for their team and for their school. We really did not have any serious consideration about that happening.”

The obvious question, then, is this: Why not just extend the NCAA Championship another day? That way there could be a 72-hole individual title, with the match-play bracket also spread out over three days. Though college coaches rarely agree on anything, that format would seem a logical compromise. But it’s not that simple.

“Those (six) are the days set by the NCAA and those are the number of days that they’re providing financial support for the tournament,” Carter said. “To stretch it out another day, that’s money that the committee doesn’t have the authority to spend.”

We’ll soon discover whether this experiment proves a grand success, or if it forces the NCAA to once again reexamine its championship format.

One thing is for certain, though: The individual champion no longer will play in obscurity.