TOLEDO, Ohio (AP) — With just eight holes remaining in the race for medalist at the NCAA Division I men’s golf championship, North Carolina State’s Matt Hill trailed by two strokes.
Instead of panic, it was time to take control.
Hill made three birdies down the stretch and then played keepaway with the lead to capture the top individual prize Thursday at Inverness Club.
“I’m pretty pumped up, that’s for sure, and a little bit relieved at the same time,” Hill said after shooting his third consecutive 2-under 69 to finish at 6-under 207.
The tall Canadian started the day tied for the lead with Georgia’s Russell Henley, who lapsed to a 75 to finish at 213. Starting on the 10th hole, Hill played the first 10 holes in even par and by that point trailed TCU’s Tom Hoge by two shots.
Clemson junior Kyle Stanley, who matched the day’s low round with a 66, was second by two strokes. He got a close look at Hill’s play.
“You have to tip your hat to Matt. I played with him all three days and he played some incredible golf,” Stanley said. “Obviously, he’s used to winning. And he played great.”
Hill, who finished the season with eight wins, picked up the pace. The sophomore from Bright’s Grove, Ontario – also PGA Tour star Mike Weir’s hometown – birdied holes No. 2 and 5 to regain the lead while those around him were falling victim to the wet conditions, which made the greens receptive but the course even longer.
Hill bogeyed the long, par-4 seventh hole after finding the thick rough off the tee, but all but locked up the win with a birdie at the par-5 eighth. He cut the corner with a drive that caught a slope and ended up almost 370 yards from the tee. From there he hit a 6 iron about 220 yards to middle of the green and two-putted for the birdie from 30 feet.
“I didn’t really want to know where I stood until I was coming down the stretch,” he said. “It was a little bit nerve-racking on a few of the holes but as soon as I found out I had a two-shot lead it was maybe a little bit more comfortable. The bogey kind of made it a little tougher, and then I guess that birdie definitely helped on 8 when that putt snuck in there.”
No one else was making a move. Stanley parred the last five holes. One group ahead, Hoge’s lead had melted with bogeys at holes 5, 6 and 7. The last man standing was Hill.
He locked up the win with a two-putt par on his final hole, pumping his fist as the 3-footer fell into the cup.
“This whole season’s been amazing,” Hill said. “To win this is really icing on the cake and it’s really special to me. I really worked really hard to get here.”
Tom Glissmeyer of Southern California (66), Rickie Fowler (68) of the low team through 54 holes of medal play, Oklahoma State, and Hoge (70) tied for third at 3-under 210.
Glissmeyer said Hill deserves to be the national player of the year.
“He’s proving that he’s, if not the best, then one of the best in the country,” Glissmeyer said.
Only nine players in the 156-man field broke par at the 7,255-yard layout, which has also hosted PGA Championships in 1986 (won by Bob Tway on a dramatic sand shot on the 72nd hole to defeat Greg Norman) and ’93 (Paul Azinger edged Norman in a playoff), U.S. Opens in 1920 (Ted Ray), ’31 (Billy Burke), ’57 (Dick Mayer) and ’79 (Hale Irwin), the U.S. Amateur (Craig Stadler) in 1973 and the U.S. Senior Open in 2003 (Bruce Lietzke).
Hill is the first North Carolina State player to win the individual championship. Past medalists include Tiger Woods (Stanford, 1996), Phil Mickelson (Arizona State in 1989, ’90 and ’92) and Jack Nicklaus (Ohio State, 1961).
Michigan’s Alexander Sitompul shot a 70 to finish at 2-under 211. Oklahoma State’s Morgan Hoffman (71) and Central Florida’s Blayne Barber (68) were another shot back.
Oklahoma State led the eight teams qualifying for the new match-play format which begins with Friday morning’s quarterfinals. The team championship match is set for Saturday morning.
Coach Mike McGraw said that even though every team starts with a blank slate in match play, he felt his team still had an advantage because of the confidence it had gained so far.
“It means a lot. We’ve played well for three days,” McGraw said. “We knew (the new format) would be the case whether we finished first, second, eighth – you always know that that’s going to come, so it doesn’t matter. You just want to do the best you can and build confidence every day.”
The tightest race of the day was for the last spots in the team match-play. Oklahoma State went 3 under in the third round to finish at 3-under 849, which was 13 strokes ahead of runner-up Arizona State.
Southern California started the round tied for 12th but climbed all the way to a tie for third with Arkansas and Washington, going 5 under on the day.
Oklahoma State, which includes Tway’s son, Kevin, will face eighth-seeded Georgia. In the other quarterfinals, Arizona State will meet No. 7 Texas A&M, No. 3 USC will play No. 6 Michigan, and No. 4 Arkansas will face No. 5 Washington.
The second round was suspended for 4 1/2 hours by a thunderstorm, requiring almost half the field to come back Thursday morning to pick up where they left off when darkness fell on Wednesday night. The third round began mid-morning but the rain held off, although the deep rough was particularly thick and troublesome because it was so wet.