During the college golf season, GolfChannel.com will check in weekly to update what’s happening in the world of college golf.
When it comes to being NCAA regional material, Stanford checks several boxes.
The Cardinal certainly pass the eye test, boasting a deep team led by seniors Brandon Wu and Isaiah Salinda. They are ranked 31st by Golfstat, well clear of what is typically the at-large cutoff in the low- to mid-60s. And at this point in the season, they have played the toughest schedule in the country.
But because of one regulation, Stanford’s postseason hopes – and a few other top-50 teams for that matter – could be in danger.
Twelve years ago, the .500 rule was introduced – somewhat controversially – in Division I men’s golf. Starting with the 2007-08 season, teams needed to finish the regular season, including conference play, with a .500 or better head-to-head record against Division I opponents to be eligible for regional play.
The main goal behind this change was to provide mid-majors and smaller-budget programs more opportunity to play better tournaments and teams while preventing a pack-like mentality from the elites.
“There were tournaments that were very difficult for anyone to break into,” East Tennessee State coach Fred Warren said. “And in the past, if you were playing that strong of schedule you could actually finish bottom half of the field and even though you’re below .500, you could finish with a pretty good ranking and make a regional.”
In that sense, the .500 rule has done its job. These days there are plenty of competitive options throughout the calendar – and for most everyone. Fifteen years ago, would a team like Rice have been able to play an elite event like the Querencia Cabo Collegiate? Rarely. The rule has brought teams from the SEC and Ivy League together more often, and the greater number of connections has improved the accuracy of the rankings.
But is the rule necessary?
“I don’t think it’s helping our sport as much as it’s helping some teams,” Alabama coach Jay Seawell said. “… I think it’s made the regular season weaker.”
In the first season of the .500 rule, four teams that would normally have been ranked well enough to make regionals – Arizona, Vanderbilt, Northwestern and Minnesota – finished the season under .500 and didn’t qualify for the postseason. There have been just seven more instances in 10 seasons since as coaches have adapted.
But the collective adjustment has come with consequences. While more tournaments are attracting more top teams, the change is watering down the regular-season product. There’s little incentive for coaches to beef up schedules.
“If you have too many good schools [in an event], some good teams are fearful of coming because they are going to lose to too many,” Arizona coach Jim Anderson said.
Thus, there’s a growing trend of coaches at elite programs scheduling one or two “cupcake” events to pad their team’s head-to-head record. No one likes this approach in college football, so why is it OK in college golf? It’s undoubtedly bad optics.
“It’s not healthy for the sport or the kids who are on the teams to schedule a softer tournament on purpose just to get wins,” Stanford coach Conrad Ray said.
Some would argue that the .500 rule adds an element of strategy to scheduling. Others would better compare it with a game of roulette. With most coaches setting their schedules a year in advance and everyone required to lock in their spring schedules by the end of the fall, there’s little room for much adversity.
What happens if a team is without its best player in the fall, digs itself a deep hole and despite climbing in the rankings can’t get above .500? Or a team, like we saw with Iowa in the fall, gets an unfortunate DQ in a large event and it costs them a regional bid? Or a team is expecting to have top-5 talent – and sets up a top-5 schedule – but loses a player to the pros and/or injury midway through the season?
We’re seeing it happen with Alabama this season. Senior Davis Riley turned pro before the spring and sophomore Davis Shore is currently out with an injury.
While Alabama is not the same team it was, it is still regional quality. But with two events plus the SEC Championship left, the No. 21 Tide’s 57-37-1 record isn’t that comfortable of a cushion.
Honestly, it’s unfair that the best teams need to suffer for the benefit of smaller schools. In college basketball, the second half of the season is almost exclusively conference play. Like teams play each other. Also, mid-majors have a path to the postseason by either winning their conference or finishing highly in the rankings. Why can’t college golf follow this model again?
For the good of the sport, the .500 rule might need to go away. Smaller programs can still host tournaments at great venues to attract good teams, and the regular-season product will improve because the best teams and players will be challenging themselves against the best more often. We need more Matthew Wolff vs. Collin Morikawa. (College golf’s two biggest names played just one common event this season.)
“We used to compete against each other and not worry about losing,” Seawell said. “Your ranking meant something because you developed habits in the tough tournaments you played in. … You can’t do that enough anymore because of the .500 rule. I think good things happen when you get beat up. These kids need to understand where they truly stand, and I think this rule has kept them from playing some of the best players in the country more often.”
Ray has refused to schedule around the .500 rule. While it’s the right move, is it really the smart move? Stanford is 42-42-1 with three tournaments left. Its next one, The Goodwin, is a home event but also features 26 teams. One bizarre bad break could be catastrophic. Other teams are in the same boat.
Instead of focusing solely on winning and improving, many teams constantly have to watch their records. Isn’t that what rankings are for?
“Win or losses [and not just winning] are on people’s minds for sure,” Ray said, “and I don’t know if that’s a good thing.”
PASSING THE TEST
Iowa State’s victory Sunday at the Mountain View Collegiate marked several firsts for the women’s program.
The Cyclones shot a school-record, 20-under 268 in the final round to rally from five shots down and win by 14. The team also finished with a program-best 54-hole total of 836. Sophomore Joy Chou shot 8-under 64 for the lowest 18-hole score in school history. And for the first time, Iowa State had all five players shoot under par in a single round.
But the most meaningful first was unquestioned: It was Iowa State’s first victory since the tragic death of former Cyclones star Celia Barquin Arozamena, who, at age 22, was killed on a golf course near campus last September.
“They don’t talk about [Celia] every second, but you know that they’re thinking about her,” Iowa State coach Christie Martens said.
And on Sunday, they won for Arozamena thanks to a record-breaking final round at The Preserve Golf Club in Tucson, Ariz., that Martens called the best round she’s ever coached – by far.
“It’s a very special group and any time you go through something like we went through, either you come together or crumble apart, and our team has shown so much resilience and toughness,” Martens said. “It’s really been amazing.”
The Cyclones, ranked No. 41 by Golfstat, will now head to Napa, Calif., for the Silverado Showdown, their last tune-up before the Big 12 Championship.
Paul Casey is no stranger to successfully defending tournaments. He wrapped up his second consecutive Valspar Championship victory on Sunday at Innisbrook. But well before that, Casey actually won three straight conference titles while at Arizona State.
Casey won Pac-10 Championships in 1998, ’99 and ’00. As a freshman, Casey rallied from nine strokes down on the final day. A year later, he shot an NCAA-record 60 and came back from an eight-shot deficit. He then broke Tiger Woods’ 72-hole Pac-10 scoring record in relation to par, winning at 23 under.
“I was on a roll,” Casey said of his 60 in a school release back in 1999. “The plan was to shoot a 65 and maybe tie the Pac-10 record. I didn't have any pressure on me. I rolled some real good putts and got lucky on some.”
Oklahoma senior Brad Dalke pulled off a rare feat earlier this month – he hit his tee three times in one swing on the range. Impressive.
College golf’s largest regular-season event, the 26-team The Goodwin, will take place Thursday-Saturday at Stanford Golf Course. The John Hayt Invitational is also on the docket, ending Monday. On the women’s side, conference championships are getting closer, but first this weekend will see a trio of notable events – Bryan National Collegiate, LSU Tiger Classic and Ping/ASU Invitational, all which conclude Sunday.