STILLWATER, Okla. – The last time Oklahoma State and Alabama met in the final match of the NCAA Championship, in 2014, Cowboys fans piled into their sedans and trucks and charter buses and drove two-and-a-half hours on I-35 to Hutchinson, Kansas. Even Pistol Pete made the trip to pump up roughly a thousand fans around the first tee.
The OSU faithful returned home that day disappointed by the 4-1 loss, but that prideful display reaffirmed the long-held belief that no school in the country cares as deeply and as passionately about college golf as Oklahoma State. After all, it’s the only athletic department bold enough to use the hashtag “GolfSchool” on all of its social-media posts.
The Cowboys will have another chance to satisfy their title-starved fan base Wednesday at Karsten Creek, where they will have a rematch with Alabama – this time as the undisputed No. 1 team in the country, on their home course.
“This will be even more Ryder Cup-style,” Alabama coach Jay Seawell said, “and we’ll definitely be Europe in America.”
Seawell knows what to expect in a star-studded championship match that could draw as many as 5,000 fans.
He knows that no one will pick his team to prevail, not against a nine-win juggernaut with a significant home-course advantage.
He knows that the only people who will clap for his players’ good shots are parents and girlfriends, and he knows that there might be even a few cheers for their poor ones, too.
“The key is to just not get caught up in it,” Seawell said. “I have to tell them: ‘This is what’s going to happen. Learn how to deal with it.’
“Oklahoma State wouldn’t win because they had thousands of people yelling. They’d win because they’re a talented team and they played better than us.”
Alabama is one of the few teams in the country that can match up favorably with Oklahoma State.
In the semifinals against Duke, the Crimson Tide earned just the second 5-0 sweep in the match-play era to play for their fourth national title in the past seven years, a remarkable feat considering the volatility of the format.
But this team looks decidedly different from that dynastic group of Justin Thomas, Bobby Wyatt, Cory Whitsett and Trey Mullinax. This time, Alabama has a pair of steady seniors, a tantalizing prospect in junior Davis Riley and two fearless freshmen, Davis Shore and Wilson Furr, with plenty of big-game experience. The former U.S. Junior Ryder Cup and Four-Ball partners combined to go 4-0 on Tuesday.
“I’ve never been on a team with freshmen who can play this way,” senior Lee Hodges said. “I knew they’d be great players, but they’re even better than I thought.”
And to think, Furr couldn’t even crack the Alabama lineup in the fall, his game in disarray because of what was later described as the driver yips. Karsten Creek might be the last place on Earth that a player with long-game troubles would want to compete – “There’s a lot of crosses out there – it’s killed a lot of good players,” Seawell said – but Furr got his game back on track this spring with the help of swing coach Jeff Smith. In the semifinals, Furr routed his opponent, 7 and 6.
“They’re special kids,” Hodges said.
Seawell said this team’s turning point came at last month’s SEC Championship. College golf is still, at its core, an individual pursuit, but match play tends to galvanize the truly great teams. Alabama fell behind in all five matches against Vanderbilt in the quarterfinals, only to rally and win, and then took rival Auburn to the final hole before losing on a walk-off putt.
“Something clicked during match play,” Seawell said. “I’ve always believed that a team can have a whole bunch of good players and talent but you have to trust. I saw that we became a team, and as a coach there’s nothing more satisfying.”
They grew even closer last week, when Justin Thomas – former NCAA champion, current world No. 1 – returned to Tuscaloosa for a celebrity athletic department event. Thomas practiced at the facility and played wolf games with the boys, imbuing them with belief and tips on how to handle the pressure-cooker of nationals. All week here at Karsten Creek Thomas has sent them texts, imploring them to keep pushing forward.
“And when he talks,” Riley said, “he’s someone you listen to.”
Thomas will need to save his best material for Tuesday night and Wednesday morning.
Oklahoma State has had this date circled ever since it was awarded hosting duties a few years ago. Expectations were so high that the team agreed to appear on a behind-the-scenes mini-series that documented their season under the spotlight.
There were plenty of highlights on the show: The seven wins in a row and nine victories overall. The All-America honors. The lineup without a weakness, as every player boasted a sub-par scoring average.
For good reason, perhaps, they don’t lack for confidence on the eve of the title match.
“I don’t think there’s any pressure when you’re as good as we are throughout the lineup,” said junior Zach Bauchou.
Added coach Alan Bratton: “I expect us to come out on top.”
Yes, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that the best team in the country would win on its home track. Only that hasn’t been the case the previous two times Oklahoma State hosted NCAAs. In 2003, the Cowboys lost to Clemson by two shots. Eight years later, they lost to upstart Augusta State in the semifinals. They haven’t won a NCAA title since 2006 – or a lifetime ago to these rabid fans.
They had another opportunity that spring afternoon at Prairie Dunes in 2014, with the top two teams in the country squaring off, but the pro-OSU crowd couldn’t propel them to the title.
The route this year might be shorter, but Alabama hopes to give them another quiet ride home.