Arkansas, Texas A&M headed for NCAA showdown

May 30, 2009

TOLEDO, Ohio (AP) — When the college coaches came up with the new format for the NCAA Division I men’s golf championship, this is what they had in mind.

The first foray into match play provided wild finishes, overwhelming pressure, high drama and crucial swings of momentum. And the final match has yet to be played.

First Arkansas’ David Lingmerth aced the third hole on the way to winning his match in the semifinals, helping the fourth-seeded Razorbacks beat giant-killer Georgia to earn a berth in the final.

Then Matt Van Zandt clinched the decisive point for Texas A&M by chopping a make-or-break wedge out of the high rough from 96 yards out to 15 feet from the pin, capping a day of heart-stopping action at Inverness Club.

“This format is great!” Van Zandt said seconds after a large gallery which had followed every tension-filled shot of the final hole had applauded both teams. “And it’s not just great because we’re doing so well. This is why they did this format.”

Boy, did the coaches get it right.

The day began with top-seeded Oklahoma State being stunned by eighth-seeded Georgia, which had finished 30 shots behind the Cowboys during the 54 holes of medal play that determined the eight teams in match play.

It ended with Van Zandt – whose scores hadn’t even been counted in the three medal-play rounds – slashing a shot out of the high rough that saved the day for his team.

“I’ve loved it since the minute we came up with it,” A&M coach J.T. Higgins said. “I’m a huge fan, I have been since day one. It’s proven to be really exciting and a fantastic way to play the championship.”

The Razorbacks beat eighth-seeded Georgia 3 1/2-1 1/2, and seventh-seeded Texas A&M edged sixth-seeded Michigan by the same score. The Razorbacks and Aggies are both seeking their first golf title.

Arkansas and A&M will meet for the title with 18 holes of match play Saturday.

Lingmerth, a junior from Sweden, holed a 7-iron from 202 yards to build a 2-up lead. He ended up with a 3-and-2 victory over Georgia’s Hudson Swafford.

“Of course there’s work left,” Lingmerth said. “We know that. We’re happy now but we know there’s one more day. We finished second the last five tournaments we played, so we just came to the conclusion that now we’re going to get No. 1.”

Other winners for the Razorbacks included Jamie Marshall, 1-up over Adam Mitchell, and Jason Cuthbertson, 2-and-1 over Harris English. Georgia’s Russell Henley defeated Arkansas’ Ethan Tracy 2-and-1. Brian Harman, who had led Georgia to the upset of Oklahoma State, halved his match with Andrew Landry.

That set the stage for the white-knuckle finish.

A&M had won two matches, Michigan had won one and a fourth was all square as Van Zandt carried a 1-up lead to the 17th green. After Van Zandt barely missed a 12-foot birdie putt, Michigan’s Bill Rankin calmly rolled in a 10-footer for birdie to square the match while a partisan Michigan crowd cheered.

Both hit driver on the par-4 18th, with Rankin’s ball coming to rest a couple of feet above a deep fairway bunker set in the side of a hill. He had an awkward stance, and the ball was settled down in the deep rough at Inverness Club.

Hitting first, he punched the ball out but it hit on the back of the green and took one bounce into a bunker.

“I hadn’t really had one come out of the rough all week that wasn’t soft,” he said. “That one came out fast. It didn’t have any spin on it.”

Van Zandt was 20 yards in front of him, with a better lie but still in the deep rough. He popped out a wedge that landed in the middle of the green and ended up below the hole, which was located on a shelf on the back right portion of the green. He pumped his fist and yelled, “WOOO!” when the ball stayed on the putting surface.

“I would consider wedges to be the strongest part of my game,” the senior said. “That’s why I hit driver off the tee because I knew that if I was in the rough I’d feel really comfortable hitting a wedge in. It was a 96-yard shot and my number was 90 that I was trying to hit it. When I hit it I knew it came out perfect. What else can I say?”

Rankin blasted out of the bunker but his shot rolled past the pin and rolled off the severe side of the green and into deep rough. From there, he took another mighty swing, the ball catching the edge of the hole before running several feet past.

Rankin then conceded Van Zandt’s putt, giving the Aggies the third point they needed to advance.

In addition to Van Zandt’s 1-up win, teammates Andrea Pavan beat Alexander Sitompul 8-and-7 and Bronson Burgoon topped Lion Kim 4-and-3. The Wolverines’ lone point came from Nick Pumford’s 2-and-1 victory over Conrad Shindler, with A&M’s John Hurley and Michigan’s Matt Thompson fighting to a draw.

The head-to-head struggles sapped everyone.

“It was just mentally draining,” Arkansas coach Brad McMakin said. “The kids are doing OK. Their emotions are running so high. they don’t feel it yet. They’ll hit the wall tomorrow when it’s all over with. We’re just going on pure adrenaline. But it was a great afternoon.”