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Oklahoma State fulfills its great expectations

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STILLWATER, Okla. – Standing on the edge of the 18th green, his earpiece still dangling, his Swinging Pete hat soaked with sweat, Oklahoma State athletic director Mike Holder reflected on all that he’d helped build.

This program.

This culture.

This event that now has turned into a made-for-TV drama.

After all, it was Holder, the legendary former golf coach here, who was instrumental in bringing match play to the NCAA Championship. That decision wasn’t made lightly, especially since the shift away from the 72-hole, play-five, count-four, stroke-play format came at the expense of blueblood programs like his.

“Our fans like to blame me for us not having two or three more championships,” Holder said. “But something needed to happen. No one turned out to tournaments to watch other than family members. You couldn’t get it on television. No one could understand the format. You needed to simplify it and get it down to what people can understand.”

Even the most casual fans could understand this Wednesday: Host Oklahoma State put on a show unlike any other in the history of college golf.

More than 3,000 orange-clad fans endured 95-degree temperatures and swarmed Karsten Creek to watch the five matches, creating roars so loud that players on neighboring holes had to back off shots. They had plenty to cheer for, as Oklahoma State – the winningest program in the modern era, the undisputed No. 1 team all season long, the subject of a behind-the-scenes reality show – hammered Alabama, 5-0, to capture its 11th NCAA Championship.

“I usually say that the dream is always better than the reality,” Holder said afterward, “but I’m not so sure in this case. It couldn’t be any better.”

Perhaps neither could this team.

Oklahoma State’s 10 victories tied the most in program history. The Cowboys became the first since Houston in 1977 to record double-digit wins, including an NCAA title.

Though there might not have been a superstar on this year’s roster – though National Freshman of the Year Matthew Wolff almost certainly will become one – it’s one of the deepest ever assembled. All five starters posted a sub-par scoring average. All five starters were inside the top 75 in Golfstat’s rankings. All five starters either won or finished second in an event this season. This team was so talented, and so deep, that even the bench was chock-full of former All-Americans and players who were good enough to secure status on a pro tour but not on their own starting five. 

And so, in many ways, this NCAA Championship felt like a coronation.

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After earning the top seed after stroke play, Oklahoma State outlasted No. 2-ranked Texas A&M in the quarterfinals and then convincingly dispatched SEC champion Auburn in the afternoon semifinals. 

No top seed had ever gone on to win the match-play portion, but the Cowboys drained all of the drama out of the championship match by the end of the front nine.

Leading off, sophomore Viktor Hovland was 7 under and won, 4 and 3.

In the anchor spot, junior Zach Bauchou went out in 29 and rolled, 8 and 7.

And in the middle, Wolff was 7 under and holed the clinching putt, a 20-footer for birdie on 15 that elicited a defeaning roar usually reserved for PGA Tour events.

In total, the Cowboys played the front nine in 14 under and trailed for just seven holes overall. It’s the first time in the match-play era that a team swept its opponent and didn’t reach the 17th hole in any match.

Their mission all season long was to dominate – assistant coach Donnie Darr even said they had a pre-tournament goal of securing all 15 points in match play, or going 5-0 in the three matches – and they put on a clinic in the final.

“Wow,” Alabama coach Jay Seawell said. “They were just really good today.”

The Cowboys, of course, have been really good since they captured their first NCAA title in 1963, with Labron Harris at the helm. Ten years later, Holder took over the program and experienced unrivaled success, winning a national title in four different decades (and eight in all) and establishing a winning culture.

“Playing for Mike Holder,” said current Oklahoma State coach Alan Bratton, “I had an example of excellence every single day. If he did something, he did it great. That wears off on people.”

All of that success breeds expectation, though. Holder dismissed popular coach Mike McGraw in 2013 after a few seasons that weren’t up to his lofty standards. In came Bratton, who was part of OSU’s 1995 NCAA title team that knocked off Stanford and its head-turning freshman, Tiger Woods.

But for all of its glitz and glamour, Oklahoma State had gone a dozen years without a title, and ironically, some of those close calls stemmed from the Holder-led switch to match play.

Since 2009, Oklahoma State has on multiple occasions boasted the best team in the country, but with no national titles to show for it. That included a few heartbreakers: the 2010 season, when the Cowboys lost in the championship match; the ’11 campaign, when they dropped their semifinal match to tiny Augusta State, here at home; and then in ’14, when a thousand OSU fans bused two-and-a-half hours to Prairie Dunes, only to watch a dynastic Alabama team capture its second consecutive title.

“Why wouldn’t you want that pressure to perform?” Bratton said. “Why would you compete if you don’t expect to do well? Everybody should expect to win or they shouldn’t be in the game.”

The anticipation was at an all-time high this season.

The Cowboys were the preseason No. 1. They returned a team with proven All-Americans and welcomed a pair of freshmen who were highly prized recruits. They were playing nationals on their home course. And while hoping for some exposure (and perhaps a DVR keepsake of their championship run) they agreed to appear on a four-part mini-series that took a behind-the-scenes look at the program and their rivalry with Oklahoma.

“You’d be crazy to think there wasn’t any pressure,” Darr said. “But I think it helped us get better. We were experienced with the cameras and comfortable on the big stage.”

It helps, too, that Oklahoma State can rely on its fraternity of former players. This team had unprecedented support in its quest for a title, with alumni on-hand from every era, including two players from the 1963 team all the way through four of the five members of the ’06 squad, all sporting their championship rings. They hollered all afternoon as the boys poured in putts.

“Every single one of them was here,” Holder said. “If they weren’t here physically, they were spiritually.”

Those who made the trip down the street or up the highway or across the country were treated to the most dominant performance in the match-play era. And when it was over, when Wolff dropped in the birdie putt and the crowd exploded, the Oklahoma State players donned NATIONAL CHAMPION hats and whirled T-shirts above their heads. 

“This feels like relief in a lot of ways,” Darr said. “I think that tells you a lot about the pressure we were experiencing.”

And the payoff was worth it.

Arriving at the 18th green in carts, Oklahoma State’s five starters received a hero’s welcome, greeted by hundreds of sunburned fans who waited on a hillside just to witness a trophy presentation that, for them, probably took 11 years too long.

Looking around at the delirious scene unfolding around him, Holder marveled at what his program and this sport have become.

“I’ve always said that when you get the right elements together and you embrace it, when you don’t shy away from the pressure, then you can do magical things that you only dream of,” he said. “And there’s nothing quite like this that I’ve seen.”