MILTON, Ga. – So this is what a vulnerable Cal team looks like.
The top-ranked team, the No. 1 overall seed, the winners of 11 of their 13 starts, the authors of arguably the greatest college golf season ever … yes, those Golden Bears were on the ropes Friday. They were down to their 18th hole, needing a halve on the last to sneak past Arizona State, one of the youngest squads in the country.
The Sun Devils entered this week as the country’s 38th-ranked team. They hadn’t won a tournament all season. They grabbed the last spot available at NCAA regionals, when they were playing on their home course. They needed a 4-for-3 playoff just to reach match play.
“We had zero pressure,” Arizona State coach Tim Mickelson said Friday. “Nobody gave us a chance to get to match play. Nobody gave us a chance to win today, and I get it. But we weren’t scared of them. This was a team that was excited about the opportunity to play somebody.”
Giving the country’s top team all it could handle – defeating both the No. 1-ranked player in the country (Michael Kim) and the U.S. Amateur runner-up (Michael Weaver) – Arizona State had an opportunity to send Cal into a full-blown panic attack on the final hole.
But from 138 yards, Cal’s Brandon Hagy stuffed a gap-wedge shot inside 5 feet for a conceded birdie and 2-up victory. That proved to be the difference in the Golden Bears’ 3-2 victory, setting up a date with Illinois in the semifinals.
“It was an uneasy feeling. You just have to know there is nothing here that’s going to be easy,” Cal coach Steve Desimone said. “You could sense in (Arizona State’s) players they really felt like they knew they’d been playing well and had a good shot at this. Their sense of purpose was unbelievably strong. I told every one of our guys that you better take a look at your opponent and know they’re not going to stop until you beat them.”
Entering this week, the Golden Bears boasted a head-to-head record this season of 173-3-1, with a new modern-day NCAA record of 11 wins.
Combined, they had defeated teams this season by more than 6,000 shots.
All five players on the team were ranked inside the top 25, and each had won an individual title this season.
Their scoring averages, from the No. 1 player to the No. 5 guy, ranged from 70.1 to 71.0.
Cal won the stroke-play portion of this NCAA Championship by six shots, and the team’s lone senior, Max Homa, captured the individual title.
“I don’t see how it gets any better than that,” Mickelson said. “I believe it’s the best team we’ve ever put on a golf course.”
Yet here’s the thing: Since match play was instituted at NCAAs in 2009, no top seed has ever gone on to win the title.
“It’s not a coincidence,” Desimone said. “The pressure to be the No. 1 seed, to take the top spot, there’s a bull’s-eye on us. It hasn’t taken its toll, but you can’t help but feel some of that.”
Said Homa: “If you have a bull’s-eye on your back, that means you’re out front. Pressure is a privilege, and you want people to be chasing you because you’re doing something right.”
Up next for the Golden Bears: Illinois, which knocked off defending champion Texas, 3-2, in one of the four quarterfinal matches.
Quietly, the Illini have won six tournaments this season, including their last two to close the spring, the Big 10 Championship and NCAA regional. They’re ranked 26th in the country.
“They’re a wolf in sheep’s clothing with that ranking,” said Texas coach John Fields. “We know they’re good.”
Thomas Pieters (the 2012 NCAA champion) and Thomas Petry are both ranked inside the top 80, but the Illini have a few unheralded players, too.
Freshman Charlie Danielson sat out one of the team’s spring tournaments because of poor play, but on Friday he delivered the clinching point for the Illini. After blasting his tee shots into the right trees on 18, Danielson holed a 20-foot par putt to win his match over Texas’ Toni Hakula, 1 up.
Even more impressive, however, was Alex Burge. In the past month, the sophomore has won a U.S. Open local qualifier; shot three consecutive rounds in the 80s at NCAA regionals; fired a course-record 64 at Atlanta Country Club; made five straight birdies in the third round of the NCAAs to propel his team to match play; and now, dusted Texas’ Cody Gribble, 3 and 2, in the quarterfinals.
What’s more, the prospect of facing top-ranked Cal doesn’t faze him, either.
“Love it,” he said. “That’s what we came here to do. You can’t win nationals without beating the best.”
And like Arizona State before them, the Illini are approaching their semifinal opponent with the same very dangerous attitude: Let’s take our best shot and see what happens.
“There’s going to be some pressure on those guys,” Illinois coach Mike Small said. “There’s none on us. We’re tough. We’re not going to shy away from anybody.”