During the college golf season, GolfChannel.com will check in weekly to update what’s happening in the world of college golf.
On the heels of last weekend’s Big 12 Match Play Championship and last Wednesday’s “Big Match” between Stanford and Cal, it’s a perfect time to make this plea: More match play, please!
The popular head-to-head format was introduced at the NCAA Championship in 2009, and now has its footprint throughout the season with events such as Golf Channel’s East Lake Cup, Ohio State’s Jack Nicklaus Invitational and Stanford’s quadrennial Cypress Point Classic, which will take place next month.
But there’s certainly the appetite for more, which is why I’ll kick around two ideas designed at packing more match play – and excitement – into the regular season: one involves creating conference match-play championships in the fall while the other calls for adding more Stanford-Cal-type rivalry matches.
“There’s nothing better than the match-play format,” said Texas Tech coach Greg Sands, whose team won the Big 12 Match Play on Sunday. “Any time you can add more match play, it’s healthy for college golf.”
We’ll start with the first idea. The Ohio Valley Conference will become the fifth conference this spring to determine its conference champion – and automatic NCAA regional qualifier – via match play, joining the SEC, Conference USA, Sun Belt and Big South. But the reason why more conferences haven’t made the switch is because many, particularly the non-Power 5 conferences, are concerned with their best team not qualifying for regionals.
The easiest way to solve that problem it to do what the Big 12 started last fall and add a match-play championship in the fall. The spring championship would be stroke play and determine the automatic qualifier, but the fall championship would offer another opportunity to gain high-pressure match-play experience. (Think track and field, which holds its indoor championships in the winter and outdoor championships in the spring.)
It’s already a big hit in the Big 12 – and the Big Ten, which holds its match-play championship in the spring. Baylor recently presented its players with rings for winning last year’s inaugural championship.
“This is our way to basically have two conference championships,” Sands said. “We feel like it’s something that’s a little outside the box, but we felt like for the student-athletes it was good to give them an extra opportunity to practice match play and for us to have a conference title on the line – in a different way but in a way that was productive.
“We do think that maybe it will catch on.”
With the NCAA capping competition days at 24 per season, the addition of two or three days for yet another championship would be impossible, unless the NCAA exempts the days like it does for conference championships in the spring. If that doesn’t happen, teams could still pull it off by sacrificing one stroke-play event. Big 12 teams were able to squeeze five matches into three days at Houston Oaks.
“If you’re going to do something like that, the key is starting straight into match play,” Oklahoma State coach Alan Bratton said. “We played five matches in three days; that’s almost two tournaments worth of rounds. … It’s a lot of golf, but that’s what you want.”
In a sport that is all over the place as it relates to scoring, formats and rankings, the most important thing is uniformity. The ideal scenario with the conference match-play championship model is to hold all of them in the fall, preferably late October, and get full participation.
“If one team decides not to play, then you don’t get a true champion,” Florida State coach Trey Jones said.
Moving on to Idea No. 2, it would be great if college golf could tap more into the great rivalries of college sports, much like football and basketball do. Too many college tournaments involve multiple teams, but how cool would it be to have loads of head-to-head rivalry matchups similar to what we saw last week between Stanford and Cal?
While there is some support for a full conference slates of matches during the season, that idea may be too cost prohibitive. A more reasonable possibility would be the NCAA exempting teams one competition day per season to schedule a match against its biggest rival, preferably around a big football or basketball game. For football games played later in the fall, this exemption – similar to one extended to teams playing in the East Lake Cup – would make it easy for teams to stay within its 144-day allotment for the season.
Imagine this: before Oklahoma and Texas play on the gridiron in Dallas, the golf teams face off that morning. Or prior to the Duke-North Carolina hoops game.
“It brings matches back to campus where people want to see us,” Sands said. “As things have been going well this fall, I’ve gotten several emails saying, ‘Hey, when are you guys going to play in town?’ and it’s hard to tell them that we’re not.”
You could even get alumni involved, maybe having Brooks Koepka play Billy Horschel as the sixth match prior to the Florida State-Florida football game. Adding Tour pros to the mix would certainly attract fans to a sport trying to gain exposure. And this kind of thing would be a no-brainer for local and national coverage. Many of these conference television networks and other outlets are already in town for football.
“Fall is the perfect time for us to play some of these head-to-head matches,” Jones said. “… I just think we’re missing a cool opportunity to have some people come out and watch, and have another thing going on during gameday weekends. These matches basically become part of the tailgate.”
While we’re far away from either of these concepts becoming reality, ideas have to start somewhere, right?
1. Is Texas Tech the new team to beat in men’s college golf? One could certainly make the argument. After winning the Carmel Cup and Inverness Intercollegiate, the Red Raiders won all five of their matches at the Big 12 Match Play, including the final against Kansas, 4-1-1. In all, Texas Tech dropped just six individual matches, two coming in a 3-2-1 win over preseason No. 1 Texas.
“This was a year that I had circled,” Texas Tech coach Greg Sands told GolfChannel.com. And for good reason. Senior Sandy Scott has statistically been the best amateur in the world the last six months, and Texas Tech added another Scottish player, Missouri transfer Jamie Stewart, and Swedish stud freshman Ludvig Aberg before this season. But it’s been the emergence of junior Andy Lopez that, as Sands said, “has put us from being top 10 to one of the best teams in the country.”
Lopez played at Plano West High with the Coody twins (Parker and Pierceson are sophomores at Texas) and spent his freshman year at Stephen F. Austin. Sands didn’t recruit Lopez initially, but assistant Mikkeel Bjerch-Andresen did when he held the same position at SFA. Lopez transferred prior to last season but didn’t play as a sophomore. This fall, though, he’s stepped up his game in a massive way, tying for third at Pebble Beach, sharing medalist honors at Inverness and going 5-0 at Houston Oaks.
“You take a guy who didn’t play much golf for us last year,” Sands said, “and now he’s playing at an All-American level.”
2. Texas women’s coach Ryan Murphy said last week before the Longhorns’ home tournament: “If we’re firing on all cylinders, there’s a good chance we win the golf tournament.” Well, even without junior Agathe Laisne (injured) and senior Emilee Hoffman (LPGA Q-School), Texas was able to win. The Longhorns took the Betsy Rawls title for the third straight year, firing a program-record, 15-under final round to win by two shots over previously unbeaten Kent State. Freshman Sophie Guo led three Longhorns in the top 8, finishing fourth, six shots back of medalist Isabella Fierro of Oklahoma State.
3. There’s a reason why GolfChannel.com ranked Michigan State among the top 15 women’s teams entering the fall. The Spartans won their second straight tournament by capturing the Ruth’s Chris Tar Heel Invite. Behind medalist Valery Plata, Michigan State beat a slew of top teams, including Duke by three shots, Wake Forest by five and South Carolina by nine. “I want our team to understand we can play with anyone,” Spartans coach Stacy Slobodnik-Stoll said. “We just have to keep working and we can be one of the best teams in the country.”
4. Stanford freshman and this past summer’s U.S. Girls’ Junior champ, Angelina Ye, picked up her first college victory at the Cardinal’s home event. However, Stanford, playing without seniors Andrea Lee and Albane Valenzuela (LPGA Q-School), finished second as a team, five shots behind Arizona State, which was paced by freshman phenom Linn Grant (third) and junior Raquel Olmos (T-5). Two other teams playing without their top player because of Q-School, USC (Jennifer Chang) and Florida (Sierra Brooks), finished T-3 and T-5, respectively.
5. Georgia held on for a one-shot victory over Vanderbilt at the Crooked Stick Invitational on Tuesday. The Bulldogs got top-8 finishes from Spencer Ralston and Davis Thompson, but the key for Georgia was Callum Masters' runner-up showing. Remember, Masters was the Troy transfer who sat out all of last season. Commodores senior stud John Augenstein, who was second in his season debut at the Nike, finished third, though he bogeyed two of his final four holes to end up two back of medalist Tyler Leach of Marquette.
Tweet of the week
It was good to see Texas sophomore Cole Hammer compete in his first PGA Tour event since he played the 2015 U.S. Open at age 15. Hammer opened in 5-under 67, made the cut and ultimately finished T-61. Here's a clip from his pre-tournament press conference:
Two of the top men’s tournaments of the fall take place this weekend. The Tavistock Collegiate Invitational begins Sunday and features an elite field that includes Texas, Texas Tech and Vanderbilt. The Golf Club of Georgia Collegiate will take place Friday-Sunday, with the likes of Georgia Tech, Wake Forest and Pepperdine set to compete there.