HUTCHINSON, Kan. – Josh Gregory has that familiar feeling.
Twelve years ago, he took over as the head coach at Augusta State, a tiny school in the home of the Masters that is Division II in everything but golf. In 2010 and ’11, he stunned the college golf world by leading them to back-to-back NCAA Championships.
Remarkably, he has built another fast-rising program at SMU, his alma mater, recruiting and developing a roster that is all his. His players. His beliefs. His development.
“As a coach you always want to prove that you can do this,” he said late Monday night. “I have a hard time accepting and enjoying my past. To come here and start from scratch, to build a program, it’s just so gratifying.”
Of course, an hour earlier, Gregory admittedly was “as nervous and excited and scared as I’ve been.”
The final round of NCAA stroke-play qualifying tends to have that effect.
The Mustangs are the 28th-ranked team in the country, but evidently they’re peaking at just the right time. They won their conference championship, holding off top-10 programs UCF and Houston. Only then did they begin to believe how good they truly were.
“You could see the change in their attitude and how they approached it,” said Gregory, and at NCAA regionals they led until the final four holes of the tournament, eventually finishing fourth.
At Prairie Dunes, SMU was safely inside the top-8 bubble until dropping three shots on its final hole. At 5-over 845, the Mustangs had to wait an hour, maybe more, to learn whether they would move on to match play.
First came Illinois.
Last year’s NCAA runner-up was led on the final day by Brian Campbell, a winner last week at regionals but a player whose putter went ice-cold over the first two rounds (70-74) here. Illini coach Mike Small said the turning point for his team was when Campbell poured in an 8-foot birdie putt on his first hole, No. 10.
“Floodgates,” Small said, smiling.
Campbell added birdies on 17, 18, 1, 2 and 6, then drained a 10-foot eagle on the short par-5 seventh – a nine-hole run in 7 under par – to single-handedly propel the Illini inside the top 8.
“He took over today,” Small said. “His heart is bigger than his body.”
When the Illini finished, however, it was still unclear whether they would finish inside the number or require a team playoff.
So next came UCLA and South Carolina, playing in the same group.
For the Bruins, Jonathan Garrick and Lorens Chan both came home in 33, with Chan getting up and down from behind the 18th green for a critical par. Even more critical was senior Anton Arboleda, who made a 10-foot eagle putt on 7, then two-putted from 50 feet on the last to seal the No. 6 seed for UCLA.
And so completes a remarkable turnaround for a team that didn’t win this season, finished seventh at the Pac-12 Championship and was nine holes away from being outside the cut line at regionals.
Finishing fifth at regionals, though, “felt like a win,” Arboleda said. “We felt like we were on top of the world, and this week we’ve just had good vibes.”
It's safe to say that South Carolina’s Will Murphy felt otherwise coming down the stretch. Only one shot off the individual lead, he first made bogey on the eighth hole, his 17th of the day. Then his tee shot on the par-4 ninth went way left, into the knee-high rough, and he was forced to take an unplayable. His third shot came up short of the green, he chipped up and then missed the bogey putt for a deflating double.
The last hope for the Gamecocks was Caleb Sturgeon, who needed to hole a slippery 25-foot birdie putt on the last to force a three-team playoff. It missed on the high side. The team was eliminated.
“All year we haven’t closed out our rounds,” head coach Bill McDonald said, “and I think that’s ultimately what got us again.”
The original schedule called for a separate round Monday for the low 40 and ties to determine the individual champion. That was scrapped after more than 10 1/2 hours of weather delays.
Yes, the new format would have boosted the prestige of the NCAA individual championship – 72 holes, of course, is the standard in competitive golf – but it also undersold the nonstop drama of team stroke play.
Every year it delivers – teams that rise to the occasion, and the others that, inevitably, falter under the pressure.
When the final putt dropped, Gregory was standing on a sand hill left of the ninth green. He buried his head in his assistant’s shoulders, then bear-hugged each of his players.
Indeed, four years after shocking the college golf world, a Gregory-led team appears determined to do it again.