MILTON, Ga. – This was always the worst-case scenario for Cal coach Steve Desimone, only with more tears involved.
The possibility gnawed at him last week, when his top-seeded Golden Bears prepared to put their historic season on the line at Capital City Club.
It gnawed at him last June, when his team lost in the semifinals at Riviera.
It gnawed at him a few years ago, when top-ranked Oklahoma State – undoubtedly the best team in the country – was twice upset by upstart Augusta State and sent packing too early.
It gnawed at him in 2008, when the NCAA committee first decided that the team champion must not only navigate 54 holes of stroke play, but also an eight-team match-play bracket.
And now, here was senior Max Homa, Desimone’s star player, staggering on the front edge of the green, his face in his shirt, after his 12-foot par putt failed to drop. The miss gave Illinois a 3-2 victory in an epic semifinal Saturday at the NCAA Championship. The miss ended Cal’s dream season a day earlier than expected.
This, you see, was what Desimone had always feared.
“All today does,” he said in the parking lot late Saturday, “is demonstrate again that this is not the best way to crown the national champion.”
For the fourth time in the past five years, the nation’s No. 1 team is leaving NCAAs without the trophy.
But this was an even more extreme case.
The Golden Bears were the top team by a wide margin. They had won 11 of their 13 starts, a modern-day NCAA record. Entering this week, they were 173-3-1, head-to-head, against other teams. They finished the season more than 6,000 shots ahead of their opponents.
All five starters won an individual title this season.
All five starters posted a scoring average between 70.1 and 71.0.
All five starters were ranked inside the top 25. Three were first-team All-Americans, the other two likely second- or third-teamers.
On Thursday, the Golden Bears captured the 54-hole stroke-play portion by six shots. If this were a 72-hole championship, they likely would have won by a dozen or more.
“I don’t know another season like this is ever going to happen again,” Desimone said. “My humble opinion is this is the best college team that’s ever played.”
But that early-week success guaranteed little here except the No. 1 overall seed in match play, and an ever-present bull’s-eye, and mounting expectations.
In the quarterfinals Friday, they were pushed to the limit by an inexperienced Arizona State team, the 38th-ranked squad that hadn’t won a tournament all season. The Sun Devils played loose, with no pressure. They didn’t play intimidated. And they lost on the final green.
On Saturday, Cal faced a stiffer challenge in Illinois, which won five times but not against the strongest fields – the Illini had the 68th-most difficult schedule.
But Illinois freshman Charlie Danielson won his semifinal match, 3 and 2.
Sophomore Brian Campbell chipped in for birdie on the 15th hole on his way to a 2-and-1 victory over Cal’s Michael Kim, the No. 1-ranked player in the country, the presumptive Player of the Year in college golf.
And then it was down to junior Thomas Pieters, the 2012 NCAA champion, who erased a 3-down deficit at the turn to force extra holes against Homa.
Homa’s teammates watched anxiously, waiting to see if their star player, their spiritual leader, could send them to the finals. “I wanted the pressure so I was embracing it,” he would say afterward, “but it’s a lot to handle.”
On the second playoff hole – the par-4 second – Homa’s adrenaline-aided wedge shot sailed 50 feet past the cup, and he missed the 12-foot comebacker to lose in 20 holes.
Illinois’ celebration was muted: “There are mixed feelings,” coach Mike Small said. “You obviously hurt for them.”
Homa dropped his putter in disbelief. He clasped his hands behind his head, letting tears stream down his face. Soon, he would collapse into his father’s arms, sobbing.
Asked later what stung most, Homa tearfully replied: “Letting my whole family down. Those guys put so much into this year. It sucks not being the one to move us on to tomorrow.”
Just two days earlier, Homa had won the NCAA individual title for the most significant victory of his career, a win that all but sewed up a spot on this year’s Walker Cup team, one of his main goals for this season.
“I’d throw them in a grinder right now,” Homa said of his other individual accomplishments. “Anyone here can take them. I just wanted the team one.”
There always was a risk that this season – this incredible, historic season – could come crashing down with one poor day of match play.
That’s why Desimone opposed the format change when it was first adopted for the 2009 championship. He was even more convinced it was the wrong direction for college golf after seeing what happened to Oklahoma State, which for three consecutive years (2009-11) was the undisputed No. 1 team, only to leave NCAAs each year empty-handed.
And more change is likely coming to this championship. In two weeks, the Sports Management Cabinet will vote on a proposal that will extend the individual championship from 54 to 72 holes, then cram the quarterfinals and semifinals into the same day. If you remember the 2009 event – when Georgia knocked off the top-ranked team in the quarters, only to run out of steam and lose in the same-day semis – you can’t help but wonder whether that format change is for the best, either.
Said Desimone: “If you’re still tweaking it five years later, maybe it’s telling you something. It’s telling you it’s still not right.”
So now on Sunday morning Alabama will seek redemption for last year’s finals loss, while Illinois will attempt to become the first team outside the top 20 to win a title since the match-play format was instituted.
Meanwhile, the country’s best team – the group with five top-25 players, the winners of 11 of 13 events – will stay the night in Atlanta, then head for summer break, unfulfilled.
“This shouldn’t be about drama,” Desimone said. “This shouldn’t be about suspense. If you want drama, build a theme park. This is about identifying the best team in college golf. And I’m not sure the NCAAs did that this year.”