The greatest NCAA Championship that never was streamed live on the nascent NCAA.com, for a couple hundred diehard fans. This was 10 years ago, before primetime coverage and regional selection shows, before college golf became a TV spectacle that elevated the sport and made social-media stars of the game’s most tantalizing prospects.
Texas A&M may be credited with the 2009 NCAA title, but a decade later, there’s a sense the championship was actually decided in the quarterfinals, in an instant classic between Georgia and Oklahoma State, two powerhouse programs that eventually graduated eight of those 10 starters to the PGA Tour.
Their duel at Inverness remains one of college golf’s signature moments, a historic match witnessed by few but immortalized by the participants. That quarterfinal showdown, on May 29, 2009, featured a blockbuster anchor match between American amateur stars, ushered in the unpredictable match-play era and prompted a brief NCAA scheduling change – but it also left those who were there unsatisfied by the ending.
“Having that match decided in the quarterfinals,” said one NCAA title-winning coach, “that’s the crime of the decade in college golf.”
Why the perceived injustice? Because Oklahoma State and Georgia were – easily – the top two teams in the country that season. Entering nationals, the Cowboys’ roster boasted Rickie Fowler, Kevin Tway and Morgan Hoffmann and had led wire to wire across their last three tournaments, with five wins overall. The Bulldogs also came in streaking, with an entire starting lineup full of All-Americans (including Brian Harman, Russell Henley and Hudson Swafford) and five tournament titles.
“We were always Nos. 1 and 2, going back and forth all year,” Fowler said. “We played a lot of similar tournaments. We were all good friends. We knew, even at the time, the quality of players on both sides.”
OSU teammates Rickie Fowler, Morgan Hoffman, Peter Uihlein at the '09 Walker Cup (Getty)
But the season-ending NCAAs that year promised a unique challenge. Hoping to inject some excitement into its national championship – with an eye on landing a future TV deal – the NCAA committee abandoned 72 holes of stroke play for a new format: a 54-hole stroke-play qualifier, leading into an eight-team, single-elimination match-play bracket to crown the national champion.
“There were a lot of mumblings and grumblings,” Georgia coach Chris Haack said. “A lot of people would have rather just stuck with the four-round event, but I was for match play – I thought it’d create some excitement and it wouldn’t be so anticlimactic.”
The movement was spearheaded by legendary former Oklahoma State coach Mike Holder, and – ironically – it likely cost the Cowboys a couple of NCAA titles, including in 2009. At Inverness, OSU played beautifully and won the stroke-play portion by 13 shots, with Fowler and Hoffmann both finishing inside the top 7 individually. All that performance guaranteed: that the Cowboys would be the No. 1 seed for match play.
Georgia, meanwhile, coasted through qualifying. “I probably harped on it too much with our guys that, OK, we don’t have to win this thing – just finish somewhere in the top 8,” Haack said. “In hindsight, I should have said, ‘Let’s try and win this thing, and it’ll take care of itself.’”
Instead, the Bulldogs placed seventh, 19 strokes behind Oklahoma State. Then they received some unwelcome news in the scoring tent afterward: Hudson Swafford had been taking muscle relaxers to combat back spasms, and he apparently was so hazy that he signed for a final-round 75 instead of the 74 that he’d actually shot. Having to count the higher score, the mistake dropped the Bulldogs from the seventh to the eighth seed – meaning they’d have to face off against Oklahoma State, not Arizona State, in the quarterfinals.
“I wasn’t real happy that the rules official didn’t catch it, and I wasn’t real thrilled with Hudson, either,” Haack said. “But we figured that we’re going to have to play those boys at some point, either now or in the finals, so let’s go ahead and play them.”
In no other sport can the top two teams play in any round other than the finals, but the NCAA committee treats the stroke-play portion as a qualifier and does not re-seed based on national ranking.
And so it was No. 1 Oklahoma State vs. No. 2 Georgia – in the quarterfinals.
UGA teammates Hudson Swafford, Harris English and Russell Henley (UGA athletics)
“You’d rather have 1 and 2 playing in the final match than the first match, but it’s not set up for that to happen,” said Mike McGraw, who coached Oklahoma State from 2006-13. “But it was fine. My guys were competitive. They liked seeing that. We felt confident we could beat them if we played well.”
At the time, the match-play pairings were based on rankings – the team’s No. 1 faced off against the opponent’s No. 1, etc. – which led to some juicy subplots, none more intriguing than Fowler vs. Harman: The long-haired darling of American amateur golf against the cocky country boy whose diminutive stature belied his inner rage.
“I wanted to beat him just as bad as he wanted to beat me,” Harman said. “I didn’t need any extra juice for that one.”
In the best-of-5 match-play format, Georgia’s Adam Mitchell earned the first point, cruising to a 5-and-3 victory over Tway, despite being assessed a penalty for having too many clubs in his bag.
Oklahoma State’s Peter Uihlein and Hoffmann both claimed 4-and-3 victories, while Georgia’s Henley knotted up the match at two points apiece with a 2-up win.
Fowler took control of the anchor match early and held a narrow advantage as they played Inverness’ back nine. “Each guy was hitting shot after shot as good as could be on a major-caliber course,” McGraw said. “Both of the guys are slightly built, but they’re titanic competitors. There was no doubt in your mind that these two guys were going to play the PGA Tour.”
The match flipped on the 15th green, where Harman sank an 8-foot par putt to remain 1 down. When he plucked the ball out of the cup, Harman realized that both Fowler and McGraw had already bolted for the next tee, leaving him to fetch the flagstick on the far side of the green. Harman fumed.
“He jammed the flag in the hole,” Haack recalled, “and said, ‘This really pisses me off.’”
Even now, Harman was hesitant to discuss the incident on 15, saying that Fowler was one of his peers on Tour and that he didn’t want to “throw those guys under the bus.”
“I know what happened,” he said. “Obviously I drew some inspiration from it. But it was just a moment in time, that’s all. It was a long time ago.”
OSU's Rickie Fowler during the 2009 NCAA season (OSU athletics)
McGraw wasn’t made aware of the kerfuffle until recently. Fowler didn’t even recall leaving the flag and said that it must have been an innocent “brain fart.”
“I’ve never been one to do gamesmanship or that type of thing,” Fowler said. “That’s not how I’d want to win. It’s my bad, but it was never my intention.”
Then he added, with a smirk: “I guess it worked out in his favor.”
Harman’s teammates knew immediately that the slight would ignite their senior leader. “If you’re playing against him, you don’t have to give him any more fuel, because he’s already got it,” Harris English said. “He’s a tough guy. He wants to beat you and kick you when you’re down. There’s no give-up. Harman already thought that everybody didn’t give him a chance to win that match, and when Rickie did that, there was no way he was going down – he put it in sixth gear.”
The quality of golf over the next hour was extraordinary:
Both players birdied the 16th hole from outside 15 feet.
On 17, Harman drained a short birdie putt while Fowler’s try hit the lip and spun out.
They were all square, heading to 18.
On the home hole, Harman hammered a drive down the center but faced a difficult approach into Inverness’ 18th green, with the pin tucked on the back-right shelf. Any shot long was almost a certain bogey, so Fowler went first and played cautiously, leaving his ball below the slope, about 30 feet away. Harman seized the opportunity, spinning his ball back within 4 feet of the cup.
When he drained the putt – his third birdie in a row – to close out the match, Harman pumped his fist and unleashed a primal scream. Teammates poured onto the green to celebrate a victory that felt bigger than just a berth in the semifinals.
UGA's Brian Harman after defeating OSU's Rickie Fowler (UGA athletics)
“I still get goosebumps,” Swafford said, raising his forearm. “That was the national championship – that was the match. That’s how we felt. That was it for the year.”
Donnie Wagner, the NCAA’s associate director of championships, spied Haack off the 18th green. With a wide grin, Wagner woofed, “I think we’ve got something here! Match play is here to stay.”
The loss crushed Oklahoma State, but especially Fowler. Knowing that it was his final NCAA appearance – he’d turn pro later that fall, after the Walker Cup – he broke down in the locker room. When he eventually emerged after the NCAA-mandated 10-minute cool-off period, he heaped praise on his opponent.
“To let that match slide ... it sucked,” Fowler said now, a decade later. “It’s a little bit different when you’re playing for your team and your coaches and your school. There’s a lot more pressure and emotion.”
McGraw spoke optimistically in the clubhouse afterward, about how that glitzy group would have more title chances, but the 2009 NCAAs marked the beginning of a star-crossed relationship with the new championship format. For the next few years OSU would once again field the top-ranked team, only to come up short in 2010 and ’11.
“It was a pretty raw feeling,” McGraw said.
Though Oklahoma State had an entire offseason to process the stunning result, Georgia was granted only about an hour. At the 2009 NCAAs, the quarterfinals and semifinals were contested on the same day, so the Bulldogs had little time to regroup and prepare for Arkansas, their semifinal opponent.
“I remember thinking, Man, I can’t believe we’ve got to go back out after this!” Harman said.
The Bulldogs spent that precious time in the locker room, eating lunch and regaling each other with tales of their quarterfinal glory. Haack said he and English were still discussing the win during the first few holes of the afternoon semifinals.
“We weren’t even thinking about the next match, and that’s partly my fault – I should have gotten those guys regrouped,” Haack said. “We just weren’t ready to play. It was just way too much of an emotional victory to play again.”
Arkansas was no slouch – the Razorbacks were led by future PGA Tour winners David Lingmerth and Andrew Landry – but a gassed Georgia team also didn’t mount much of a challenge, falling, 3-1-1, and leaving Inverness with mixed emotions.
The official 2009 NCAA mens' national champs, Texas A&M (Getty)
“We were on such a high that it was hard to play after that,” English said. “It’s like playing back-to-back games during March Madness. Not that Arkansas was a letdown match, but we didn’t give it as much attention as we should have.”
The NCAA, at least initially, seemed determined to avoid that buzzkill again. For the next four years, the match-play portion of the championship was spaced out over three days, to give advancing teams more time to recover. (They’ve used the condensed match-play format since 2014, after stroke play was expanded from 54 to 72 holes.) Re-seeding also remains a thorny issue for some – the Nos. 1-vs.-2 quarterfinal happened again last year, in fact – though most coaches seem indifferent.
“If you’re going to win it all,” said Texas A&M coach J.T. Higgins, “you’d probably have to beat that No. 1 team, anyway, right?”
Just as the NCAA’s Wagner predicted on the 18th green, the switch to match play has been a monster success for college golf – a tournament full of dramatic moments and clutch shots, even if the format introduces more volatility.
“I hurt for all of those guys, because we’d had a really epic and successful season,” McGraw said. “Most people want to tell you that it wasn’t a success because you got beat, but it hasn’t been a failure. I don’t think less of myself, or my life hasn’t been diminished because we lost that championship. They’re all just small lessons in perspective.”
Not even revisionist history can strip Texas A&M of its NCAA title, of course, but Haack has long held a different perspective on the final outcome that week.
“We won what was inevitably going to be the final match,” he said, “and so to this day, in my own head, I think of that as my third national championship.”