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Worth the wait: With NCAA triumph, Pepperdine finishes what it started last year

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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Just seconds before Clay Feagler struck the most important approach shot of his life, a spectator couldn’t resist cracking open an ice-cold beverage from just outside the rope line. The noise caused the Pepperdine senior to back off and prompted glares from the Waves faithful at the oblivious culprit.

Quickly, though, the attention turned back to Feagler, a fifth-year senior, who was clinging to a 1-up lead over Oklahoma’s Ben Lorenz in a crucial match Tuesday in the NCAA Championship final. From 195 yards out on Grayhawk’s finishing hole, Feagler hit 7-iron, catching it a tad thin but still finding the front portion of the green. With Lorenz missing his birdie try, Feagler then cozied his 35-foot putt up to the hole to earn the concession and, more importantly, the title-clinching third point.

Crack open as many as you’d like now.

This one was sure worth the wait.

Pepperdine was the No. 1 team in the country last spring when the season was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic, but with no postseason, the Waves were unable to prove themselves on the national-championship stage. More than a year later, they finally earned that validation with a 3-2 victory over Oklahoma, this year’s top-ranked team.

“Everyone said our year was last year,” Feagler said, “and our coach at the beginning of the year sat us down and said, ‘A lot of people don’t think you can do it this year,’ and that gave us a little chip on our shoulder, a little motivation, and look at us now, we’re standing here as national champions.”

Pepperdine wins second men's golf title in school history

Pepperdine wins second men's golf title in school history

The mood was much different 14 months ago. Feagler and his teammates were preparing for a qualifying round at North Ranch Country Club in Westlake Village, California, when they found out their season was over. Fittingly, the drizzle on that dreary Thursday morning turned into a downpour, forcing the team into the clubhouse, where they sat in silence for a good half-hour.

“I guess life throws unexpected curveballs at you, and this is a big one,” Feagler said then. “It sucks, you do all this work, and you don’t even get a shot to see what could’ve been.”

While Feagler and fellow senior Joshua McCarthy eventually opted to return for an extra year, Sahith Theegala, a three-time All-American who ended the shortened season with the Haskins Award, decided to turn pro. Pepperdine didn’t just lose its best player; it lost the program’s tone-setter.

The Waves were barely a top-100 program when Theegala arrived, and he had helped turn them into the nation’s best. How could they possibly win a national title with him gone?

It certainly wasn’t easy. Pepperdine head coach Michael Beard called this past year the “toughest year of my life coaching.” Not only did he have to navigate what seemed like endless new protocols and severe alterations to his squad’s routine, but he had to manage a team that had several strong personalities and no established leader.

With help from assistant Blaine Woodruff, a soon-to-be head-coaching target for many schools, and volunteer assistant Chris Zambri, the statistical guru who arrived last fall after stepping down at USC, Beard succeeded on all fronts. Pepperdine had just one top-50 player this season, senior Joey Vrzich, while sophomore William Mouw, though he did play in the Walker Cup, barely had a top-100 campaign. This was very much leadership by committee, and with the Waves super deep with eight top-200 players, there was always a difficult lineup decision – or two – to make. Beard’s last came at Grayhawk, when he chose to sit Joe Highsmith, who a few weeks earlier had won the Western Intercollegiate, in favor of R.J. Manke, who had just beaten Highsmith by 11 shots in a qualifier, the day before the first round.

Two days later, Beard subbed Highsmith in for Manke, and the junior, who had previously been in tears, responded with a few clutch performances.

“There’s a lot of competition going on and people getting a little wound up, and he does nothing but diffuse things and keeps the peace so well,” Zambri said. “I was just in awe the way he handled the day-to-day ups and downs of the team.”

Even with five victories during the season, Pepperdine entered nationals relatively under the radar, overlooked for more popular favorites Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas. After all, the critics contended that the Waves already had their chance, and the pandemic ended it.

“We definitely heard it, and it definitely motivated us,” Mouw said. “We knew what we were capable of. We knew we were actually a little bit better than last year, and I don’t think anybody else knew that.

“I think we were saving it for this week to show them.”

Naysayers be damned, the Waves fired the lowest round of the stroke-play portion, a closing 9-under 272, to go from ninth to third just in time for match play. That momentum only kept building in wins over Florida State and Oklahoma State.

When they got to Wednesday, the Waves had reclaimed their title as the team to beat.

The Sooners were clearly not firing on all cylinders, with senior All-American Garett Reband struggling mightily with his game, especially off the tee. Highsmith, whose fairway-bunker shot at No. 18 during the semifinals was the shot of the tournament, ended up making quick work of Reband, 4 and 3, in the second match off to cap a 3-0 week.

Oklahoma senior Jonathan Brightwell, a talented transfer from UNCG, earned Oklahoma’s first point, overcoming some short misses with the putter to bury a few late and edge Dylan Menante, 1 up, in the leadoff match. But the third Sooners senior, sixth-year player Quade Cummins, couldn’t follow suit in the anchor match, falling to Mouw, 4 and 3.

“I definitely wanted Quade, and I wanted to be in that anchor match,” Mouw said. “I love that pressure.”

With Vrzich falling 1 down late to Logan McAllister, whose ace on the eighth hole Wednesday was his second of the week, that put Pepperdine’s immediate title hopes on Feagler’s shoulders, and Feagler delivered.

Highlights: Pepperdine wins NCAA men's title

Highlights: Pepperdine wins NCAA men's title

The Waves’ all-time leader in rounds played (pretty much the only record Theegala doesn’t hold) had wrestled multiple times with whether to stick it out or follow Theegala to the pro ranks. He’s glad he chose the former, if only his friend and former teammate could’ve been a part of this.

“I wish he was here,” Feagler said of Theegala. “It would’ve been a helluva run, five years with him and win the national title. You can’t have Pepperdine without Sahith. This is as much his as it is ours.”

Theegala, who is playing the Memorial this week, was watching from Dublin, Ohio.

“I am so happy for the guys,” Theegala said Wednesday evening. “I can’t believe they got it done. After seeing the work that those guys have done under the radar, nobody deserves it more.”

Theegala’s sentiment from afar was echoed by the several Waves alumni walking the cart paths at Grayhawk. Of the 10 past players, a few of them competed on Pepperdine’s last NCAA Championship team in 1997. That year, the Waves shocked the world by winning the 72-hole stroke-play event by three shots over Wake Forest at Conway Farms in Lake Forest, Illinois. Jason Gore nearly won the individual title, too, but he doubled his final hole to miss a playoff by a shot.

Gore recalled fill-in coach Kevin Marsh (head coach John Geiberger came down with chicken pox after arriving in Illinois and was quarantined in a hotel room) telling him that the Waves were leading by five shots just before Gore hit his third shot.

“I looked at him and said, ‘I don’t think I’m going to make an 11,’” Gore said. “I tried to make an 11; I made a 7.”

Gore, who is working at the U.S. Women’s Open this week in San Francisco, was bummed he couldn’t join his former teammates for the celebration in Scottsdale as another past Waves player secured a second national title for the school.

Beard arrived on campus in Malibu two years after the Waves prevailed at Conway Farms, and he ended his four-year career as the school’s record-holder in scoring average, under-par rounds, top-10s and rounds played, the last of which was broken this week by Feagler. When Beard was hired as the Waves’ leader in December 2012, the appointment immediately became a passion project.

“This is obviously a job, but to me it doesn’t feel like one,” said Beard, who also met his wife, Susannah, in school. “It was just a given that we’re going to do what it takes.”

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Beard changed the culture at Pepperdine, a small and expensive private school in the shadows of USC and UCLA, in a big way: creating a closer connection with past players and donors; bringing in blue-chip recruits, such as Theegala and Mouw, more regularly; even raising money so that his players can eat at nice restaurants while at tournaments. He quickly earned the respect of his peers, and when other top programs with big pockets may have been in position to lure him away, Beard’s love for Pepperdine helped him see his dreams become reality at his alma mater.

“We knew this could happen, and we really thought it could happen this year,” said Steve Potts, Pepperdine’s athletic director, who last year extended Beard’s contract seven years. “At our program, we’ve had a lot of success, and typically we can be a breeding ground for Power 5 coaches, and we’re tired of that, so we decided, OK, let’s stop this. Let’s make it so he doesn’t leave.”

With an NCAA title now to his credit, Beard isn’t done dreaming. He has more aspirations for Pepperdine, including ramping up recruiting, expanding the Waves’ portfolio of home courses and constructing an on-campus practice facility on par with those of the blue-bloods.

Based on Beard’s track record, Gore sees nothing stopping the Waves.

“Michael’s built this program into – I’m not even going to say arguably, because I’m extremely biased,” Gore said. “He’s built Pepperdine into the top program in the nation.”

They were No. 1 – and the de facto national champs – a year ago.

And they were the last team standing Wednesday.

This time, though, the Waves have a trophy to show for it.