EUGENE, Ore. – In a few years, we may come to remember Beau Hossler chasing after a 4-iron off a downhill, sidehill lie as the moment that changed college golf forever.
The 24 hours that followed Hossler’s shoulder injury were among the most surreal in the history of the NCAA Championship: There was a somber news conference with the finalists; a breathless debate about the star’s status; a concession on the first hole; and, finally, a riveting final match that culminated with Oregon capturing its first national title in extra holes against short-handed Texas.
Fans unfamiliar with NCAA rules struggled to comprehend why a coach could not simply swap out an injured player on the biggest day of the year. Allowing substitutions has been a hot-button issue for the past few seasons, and the Hossler situation – and a superior Texas team’s narrow loss in the NCAA finals – might prove to be the impetus needed to enact meaningful change.
Even the winning coach, Oregon’s Casey Martin, said he’d be in favor of a rule that would allow him to call on a reserve player if needed.
“I think it really deserves attention,” he said Wednesday night. “It would be different and unique because it’s never been done, but it’s something that’s very worthy of consideration.”
In college golf, teams equipped with an eight-to-10-man roster typically bring five starters to a tournament, with the four best scores counting each round. A team’s lineup cannot change once its first player tees off on the first day of competition. If a player is injured or becomes ill during the event, the team must count the remaining four scores and cannot bring in a replacement.
That unfortunate scenario can have serious consequences: Teams with multiple poor finishes are in jeopardy of missing the postseason, with the NCAA requiring at least a .500 record to qualify for regionals.
“You can actually get fired now if you’re not performing,” Oklahoma coach Ryan Hybl said. “Our jobs mean something now. Not making it to regionals is a big deal.”
And so the past two years, at the Golf Coaches Association of America’s annual meeting in Las Vegas, the idea of a substitution rule has gained significant traction, if only to provide coaches with options.
Hybl, who has spearheaded the movement, said they took an informal poll at the convention last December and about 95 percent of coaches were in favor of the proposal. What transpired in Eugene will almost certainly put the topic at the forefront of any discussions this summer.
There still are a few issues to resolve, of course.
Most importantly, the coaches need to define what the rule would entail. To be effective, it must offer coaches complete discretion – the ability to sub out a player for a variety of reasons, from illness to injury to performance, like any other team sport. Limiting the rule to only injury or illness could lead to players feigning an ailment to benefit the team.
“We’ve got to be all-in,” Hybl said, “or not at all.”
The size of a program’s budget is another legitimate concern. Though Oregon and Texas have the funds to send an extra player to 13 events per season – and to cover the cost for another plane ticket, hotel room and food expenses – the same might not be true for mid-major schools, which would further distinguish the haves and have-nots. A logical compromise would be to allow substitutions only in the postseason, when the stakes are highest.
The individual race at each tournament (and season-long statistics) also could get messy, but that’s not a significant concern for most coaches, whose primary focus is on the team component.
With the season now over, the next step in the process is for coaches to conduct a formal poll and to submit legislation to the NCAA golf committee. Hybl said there has been a “wave of support” and that a substitution rule in college golf will be in place “sooner rather than later.” The visibility of the Hossler situation – Oregon also would have subbed, Martin said, with Thomas Lim suffering from flu-like symptoms – could expedite the timeline even more.
Interestingly, Texas coach John Fields didn’t use the team’s heartbreaking finals loss as an opportunity to agitate for change. Just the opposite, in fact.
“We had to overcome some difficulties, and we almost got that done,” he said. “Can you imagine how proud and how glowing we would have been if we had done that? But if we would have substituted somebody in, it would have detracted from that.
“Unfortunately, Beau had a tough, tough injury that made it more difficult for us to win this golf tournament. But nobody in here fretted about it. Nobody said, ‘Yeah, I wish we could substitute somebody in.’ They said, ‘Let’s go play those guys and let’s go win,’ and we almost did it.”
Who knows, maybe Texas wouldn’t have topped Oregon even with a healthy Hossler. But here’s guessing the No. 1-ranked Longhorns likely want a rematch at full strength, 5-on-5 – after all, they spotted the home team a point on the first tee, they had the NCAA Player of the Year favorite watching from outside the ropes, and they lost on the third playoff hole.
They now have a long summer to wonder what could have been.