There is nowhere to hide at the NCAA Championship. Over six days and 108 holes, a team’s frailties and fears are exposed for all to see.
Each point in the 5-on-5 team match counts the same, no matter if it comes from the No. 1-ranked player in the country or No. 311. Simply, the first team to three points wins.
Some coaches contend this format dilutes the quality of play at the top, that the elite players are neutralized. Maybe so. But there is no mistaking this point: To win the NCAA Championship, it requires a team effort.
“It makes everybody accountable,” Alabama coach Jay Seawell said. “It doesn’t matter how strong the first two or three links of your chain are. The stronger and deeper your team, the better your chances for success.”
This theme was reinforced early, when match play was first implemented at the national championship in 2009.
That year gave us one of the most clutch shots in college golf history – Texas A&M’s Bronson Burgoon stuffing a wedge to 3 inches on the closing hole at Inverness. But what truly fueled the Aggies’ run to the title were pivotal contributions by the role players earlier in the tournament.
There was Conrad Shindler shooting a back-nine 32 just to send the team into match play.
There was Matt Van Zandt, a little-known senior whose score was dropped each round in stroke-play qualifying (tied for 120th individually). But when it came down to the No. 5 man tiebreaker for team seeding, his cumulative throw-out score was better than Georgia’s fifth player. That allowed the Aggies to avoid No. 1-ranked Oklahoma State in the opening round. Van Zandt then proved even more useful in the semifinals, when he birdied the last hole to defeat Michigan and send the Aggies to their first-ever final.
And then there was Andrea Pavan, who was struggling mightily in his opener against Arizona State. There was no hope of turning around his match, but on one of the final holes he striped a 2-iron into a long par 4.
“Ugh, I just found it,” he told head coach J.T. Higgins as he returned to his bag, “but it’s too late. I’m going to lose.”
“Yeah,” Higgins replied, “but now you’re going to help us win this thing.”
Sure enough, Pavan trounced his next opponent, 8 and 7, and then rolled, 7 and 6, in the championship. He didn’t lose a hole the final two matches.
“Everyone did something that was crucial,” Higgins says now. “To me, that was the most rewarding part.”
NO TEAM IN RECENT MEMORY HAS AUTHORED a more improbable title run than Augusta State (now known as GRU Augusta), a tiny school near the home of the Masters that is Division II in every sport but golf.
Overlooked, underappreciated, then-head coach Josh Gregory used this battle cry in 2010 at the Honors Course: “No one wants to lose to Augusta State. It’s not embarrassing to lose to a Florida, a Georgia, an Oklahoma State. But no one wants to tell their friends they lost to Augusta State.”
But that’s exactly what happened. Twice.
By now you’ve undoubtedly heard that Patrick Reed went 6-0 in match play during his college career. That is true. Less publicized, but equally as important, were the roles played those years by the unheralded duo of Mitch Krywulycz and Carter Newman.
The only point Krywulycz contributed during the 2010 finals was during a dramatic turnaround against Oklahoma State’s Kevin Tway in the championship match. Four down with eight to play, Krywulycz won four holes in a row (three with birdies) and prevailed in overtime, giving the Jaguars the decisive point and a stunning upset.
As for Newman, he had a team-worst 73.85 scoring average during the 2009-10 season, and he had played terrible in stroke play, throwing up rounds of 82-79. Before the final round, Gregory stepped in to give his junior a much-needed confidence boost.
“You’ve been there for us every final round when it counted,” Gregory told him, “and there’s no doubt in my mind you’re going to do it again.”
The next day, Newman turned in a 73 in the final round to lift Augusta State into the match-play bracket, where he went 2-1. Newman was even better in 2011, posting a 3-0 record as the Jaguars became the first team since Houston (1984-85) to win back-to-back national titles.
“You can’t just go with four guys,” Gregory says now. “When you start the day giving up a point, it’s impossible. Someone has to step up.”
IN 2012, TEXAS WAS THE UNDISPUTED No. 1 team in the country, a deep, talented group led by a sensational freshman named Jordan Spieth. But entering the postseason, the Longhorns had questions at the back-end of their lineup. Junior Cody Gribble and senior Alex Moon had battled all season for the fifth spot, and during the Big 12 Championship it was Gribble who was left at home. After Texas was stunned by Texas A&M at its conference championship, however, coach John Fields was forced to reevaluate his lineup for the upcoming regionals and NCAAs.
After a week of deliberation Fields opted for Gribble – and it proved the correct choice, eventually. Sure, the left-hander was towed along for regionals (27th) and NCAA stroke play (77th), but, when it mattered most, he went 3-0 in match play – the only player to go undefeated – to help the Longhorns defeat No. 2 Alabama and win their first national title in 40 years.
Gribble was on the ropes in his semifinal match against Oregon’s Jonathan Woo, but back-to-back birdies on 16 and 17 led to a 2-and-1 victory. Afterward, he told his coach, “I really believed it was going to work out, but I didn’t know how.”
Says Fields now, “That just shows you his belief at that point. It was so strong, somehow, that he knew it was going to be OK.”
Even today, Fields thinks that Gribble wouldn’t have won that match – and Texas wouldn’t have won that title – without Moon, the sixth man. Gribble and Moon spared every day in practice, made each other better, and it’s the reason why everyone on the team – not just the starters – received championship rings.
“Everybody played a part,” Fields said.
LIKE GRIBBLE, ALABAMA'S TREY MULLINAX had his own enlightening experience last May. The born-and-bred ’Bama boy had largely underachieved during his first three years on campus, and in the NCAA finals he was reeling after getting steamrolled in his first-round match against New Mexico.
Trailing once again in the semifinals against Georgia Tech’s Shun Yat Hak, Mullinax made six 3s in a row, winning Nos. 7-12 en route to a 4-and-3 victory. A day later, he withstood a championship match with six lead changes by two-putting from 60 feet on the last for a 1-up win over Illinois’ Charlie Danielson.
For years he had watched as Alabama stars Bobby Wyatt and Cory Whitsett racked up high finishes and accolades. Finally, something had clicked.
“I learned I could play with those guys,” said Mullinax, who parlayed that match-play success into a strong senior campaign, with a victory at Isleworth, six other top 10s and a No. 13 national ranking. “It took that match to realize it.”
“In that one match,” Seawell said, “that’s how Trey became the player he is today. I could see it that night at dinner, in his final match. That’s what can happen. In those tough moments, I saw him truly grow as a player.”