When it was over, Cal coach Steve Desimone led his shell-shocked team into one of its hotel rooms outside Atlanta.
What could he say?
An hour earlier, arguably the greatest season in college golf history had come to a cold, cruel conclusion. In the semifinals of the NCAA Championship, Thomas Pieters had defeated Max Homa (pictured above at right with teammate Joel Stalter) in 20 holes to earn the decisive point. The final score was Illinois 3, Cal 2.
“Absolute heartbreak,” Desimone said. “Crushing heartbreak.”
And now the team’s five players were in tatters, eyes red, as they staggered into associate head coach Walter Chun’s room. Their heads were spinning, their hands shaking, and in the immediate aftermath there were flights to catch, awards to claim, qualifiers to play.
Suddenly, after nine long months, after five hard-fought days at NCAAs, all Desimone had left was 15 minutes.
He faced the group, cleared his throat and delivered the most difficult speech of his 35-year career.
A YEAR LATER, Desimone is still coming to grips with the fact that his team didn’t even reach the finals.
The 2012-13 Golden Bears won 11 of 13 events, a modern-day record. 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 of their starters were ranked in the top 25 nationally – three were first-team All-Americans, the other two second-teamers.
But for the fourth time in the past five years, the No. 1 team in the country left the NCAA Championship without the trophy.
That’s part of sports, of course – the best team doesn’t always win. Alabama was ranked No. 2 last year, won seven of its last eight starts, dominated the match-play bracket and deservedly captured its first men’s title in school history.
Which team was better, Cal or Alabama? Unfortunately, we’ll never know, and lately that’s been an all-too-familiar refrain.
Since 2000, the No. 1 team entering NCAAs has captured the national title just twice (2003, ’12). Since match play was implemented in 2009, the team that led the field after stroke play – the squad clearly in the best form entering the final stage – has yet to win.
That would seem to suggest that the NCAA finals are slightly askew, but one small tweak to the format could ensure that at least Nos. 1 and 2 have an opportunity to meet in the finals.
Whether they do, of course, is entirely up to them. Just ask Cal.
THE MATCH PLAY ERA got off to both a rollicking and rocky start.
In 2009, the top two teams in the country were Oklahoma State and Georgia. That year at Inverness, the Cowboys won the stroke-play qualifier while the Bulldogs lost a tiebreaker and settled for the eighth spot.
Because the seeds in the match-play bracket are based on the stroke-play standings, not an overall national ranking, one side of the draw had the Nos. 1, 2, 4 and 7 ranked teams. The other: 8, 14, 21 and 30.
Some reward for a great season: Oklahoma State and Georgia squared off in a win-or-go-home first-round matchup.
The No. 1 Cowboys lost the wildly entertaining match on the final hole. A few hours later, the No. 2 Bulldogs were gone too, having run out of steam in the semifinals. By day’s end, the top two teams in the country had been sent packing.
“An absolute crime,” says Texas coach John Fields.
Oklahoma State also boasted the No. 1-ranked team heading into the NCAAs in 2010 and 2011, only to leave each time without the title to validate it. Though in 2012 college golf fans finally got the championship match they were hoping for – top-ranked Texas vs. No. 2 Alabama – it was only because of a fortunate match-play draw. (They were Nos. 3 and 1 seeds, respectively, after stroke play.) They just as easily could have seen Oregon and San Diego State in the final match.
An instant classic, probably not.
IMAGINE THE SAME format in college basketball:
Connecticut runs the table during the regular season, dominates the conference championship, and its first-round opponent in the NCAA Tournament is not South Dakota State, Weber State or Wofford. No, it’s Kansas. Or Duke. Or Syracuse.
That’d never happen.
In fact, in the NCAA Tournament, the top seeds are nowhere near each other – they’re on opposite sides of the bracket, unable to even meet until the semifinals.
In no sport can the two best teams ever face each other in the first round … except, of course, in college golf.
At its biggest event, the NCAA ignores seven months of results and rankings and sets the all-important match-play bracket based on a 54-hole qualifier.
“They’ve obviously tried to make the regular season important,” former Oklahoma State coach Mike McGraw said, “but at the most important juncture of the season, we throw it out. At the end it doesn’t matter what we do all season long. If the regular season means something, then it has to mean something all the way until the end.”
A national ranking determines which teams make the cut for regionals.
A national ranking determines the pairings for the first two rounds of the NCAA Championship.
Why does a national ranking not determine the seeds for match play? Why not input one more 54-hole result into the system – there will be little, if any, fluctuation – and set up the bracket based on that yearlong ranking?
After all, the goal of any championship is to determine the best team – not the one that receives the luckiest draw.
Obviously, this tweak wouldn’t guarantee that the top two teams meet in the finals. But at least it would ensure that Nos. 1 and 2 have that opportunity – an important distinction, especially now with a live-television audience to consider.
“Moving forward it makes tremendous sense to go back to the original seeds,” Fields says. “I think it’s fair and I think it’s healthy, because then you’ve got the real deal right there in front of you.”
A YEAR AGO, right there in front of Desimone was a group of devastated kids who were gathered in a hotel room. They ached. They searched for understanding, for an explanation, for solace.
“It was my great honor and privilege,” Desimone said softly, “to coach the best team that has ever played college golf.”
The impromptu team meeting marked the last time they’d ever be together in the same room, all seven of them. At the NCAAs there are no long, emotional goodbyes. The finality is swift, merciless.
“That hit home for all of us,” Desimone said. “Our dreams had come crashing down. You know that it can happen, everything falling apart, but that doesn’t make it any easier when it does. It was probably the most difficult time of my career, and it took me awhile to recover from that.”
Fifteen minutes later, and they had already gone their separate ways – to their award ceremonies, to their qualifiers, to their families. Even now the head coach can’t begin talking about his 2013 team without first sighing deeply.
“Sports are fraught with disasters and disappointments,” he said. “All you can do is prepare your players for when it inevitably comes.”
And hope that the next No. 1 team doesn’t suffer the same heartbreak.