BRADENTON, Fla. – After top seed Illinois set its lineup for Tuesday’s quarterfinal match, assistant coach Zach Barlow sent heralded freshman Nick Hardy a text message.
“Be ready for that 4-5 slot all 3 matches bro,” Barlow wrote. “No one’s putter we trust more than yours! When it’s on the line, we want you putting for it.”
Fourteen hours later, Hardy was putting with everything on the line.
To the surprise of no one around this Illinois program, Hardy buried the 6-foot par putt, the finishing blow that sent the Illini to the semifinals of the NCAA Championship.
Recalling this story in the clubhouse later Tuesday, Barlow could only laugh.
“I’d let him putt for my life,” he said.
Despite trailing in all five matches early, Illinois kept its title hopes alive with a 3-2 victory over UCLA.
That was supposed to set up a blockbuster against Texas, two teams with 15 combined wins this season, but only the Illini stayed alive.
Southern Cal rolled Texas, 3-0-2, in one of the other quarterfinal matches, a victory more decisive than even the final score indicated.
“It’s a stinger,” Longhorns coach John Fields said.
With the afternoon semifinals underway at Concession, Georgia is facing SEC foe LSU, while Illinois takes on USC.
The Bulldogs, the lowest-ranked team to advance to match play, continued their surprising run with a thorough 4-1 victory over host South Florida.
LSU, which needed an incredible final-day run just to advance through regionals, won the first three matches against Vanderbilt to end the drama early.
But all eyes were on Texas, and for good reason. The Longhorns were the hottest team in the country, with six wins in their last seven events entering nationals. But this was an unusual week from the outset.
The Longhorns got off to a rocky start, and their spot in match play was only secured after playing the last two days in 12 under.
In the quarterfinals, USC’s Bobby Gojuangco led off with a 4-and-2 win, and Rico Hoey never faltered during a 2-and-1 decision over Texas’ Doug Ghim.
Sean Crocker delivered the clinching point for the Trojans, but not without some help.
Crocker won the last two holes of regulation after opponent Gavin Hall went bogey-double bogey, and Hall then blocked his tee shot into the jungle left of the 10th fairway. Over by the television set, Hall slashed around in the bushes while Crocker stuffed his approach to 10 feet. Ballgame.
“I don’t like losing,” Crocker said. “I hate losing, no matter what it is.”
Said Texas’ Beau Hossler: “The one goal at the beginning of the season was to win the national championship, so yeah, it’s disappointing, because we didn’t reach that goal. We expect to win tournaments, and obviously coming up short of that is not a good feeling.”
Four of the top five teams in the country have now left the property: No. 1 Florida State and No. 3 Arizona State didn’t even advance to match play, and No. 2 Texas and No. 5 Vanderbilt bowed out in the quarters.
“You almost have to overcome your success a little bit here,” Fields said. “It’s hard, because you’re stinging because it’s over. When you see kids go home and they’re emotional at the end, it’s because you recognize that it’s over. So many great things happen that go into this moment, it’s hard to accept.”
Illinois hopes it got its scare out of the way early.
All five players trailed in their match as the team made the turn, but they flipped the outcome with a spirited rally.
Most impressive was junior Charlie Danielson, who, starting at the eighth hole, won seven holes in a row en route to a 4-and-3 victory.
After such a dramatic swing, Small said it is his job to “spread the love, spread that momentum.”
It seemed to work for Thomas Detry, as the sweet-swinging Belgium, who was in contention for the NCAA individual title, pulled away from UCLA’s Manav Shah after making three consecutive birdies late in his round.
And it seemed to work for Hardy, who could “feel the energy” as the crowd swelled, the pressure built and it became apparent that his match would be the decider.
Small chose Hardy for the anchor spot for two reasons: He was playing well, having shared medalist honors at the Big Ten Championship a few weeks ago; and he had match play experience, having reached the semifinals of the Western Amateur as an incoming freshman.
Small has already started calling his two newcomers “sophomores,” because if they’ve come this far they’re not playing like freshmen anymore.
“Win or lose today, I want them to learn for the next two or three years," Small said. "We want to win, but I’ve got a future here, too. Might as well throw them in there. Why sit there and pamper them and baby them? Put them in there and let ’em go.”
His faith was rewarded as Hardy knocked his approach safely on the 18th green, about 40 feet from the cup. He raced his first try past the hole, but kept his composure and drained the comebacker.
They celebrated for a few minutes, and Hardy was the hero, just as Barlow suspected the night before.
A few minutes after receiving that text Monday night, the one that told him to be ready for all of the pressure and the big spot, the 19-year-old tapped out his reply.
“I want it too,” he wrote. “Thank you.”