OOLTEWAH, Tenn. — At the NCAA men’s basketball championship game last April, Butler’s Gordon Hayward fired a desperation heave at the buzzer that came within the tip of a shoelace from banking in and giving the Bulldogs an improbable victory over mighty Duke.
A Butler win would have struck a blow for all the so-called mid-major programs in the country and been forever remembered as the NCAA’s own Hoosiers moment, a win for the ages.
On Sunday at the NCAA’s men’s golf championships, that Hoosiers moment came. And once again, it was a miss that decided the national title. When Oklahoma State’s Kevin Tway couldn’t convert a four-foot par putt at the 19th hole of his match with Augusta State’s Mitch Krywulycz, the Australian, 4-down after the 11th hole, had come all the way back to provide the championship-clinching point in a 3-1-1 victory.
It wouldn’t be fair to the Jaguars to call this win an upset. Some coaches at the NCAA finals thought they were among the top five teams in the tournament. On the course, they don’t have to back down from anyone. But off the course, in terms of tradition, budgets, travel accommodations and more, Augusta State and Oklahoma State don’t even come close to measuring up. So in that respect, this could be considered an improbable victory.
“People were calling this a David versus Goliath situation,” said Augusta State coach Josh Gregory, not even trying to stop the tears that flowed freely from the second Tway’s putt missed.
“But these guys knew they could win. I’ve been preaching this for eight years, and nobody believed me. I knew something like this could happen at Augusta State.”
So did Augusta State athletic director Clint Bryant, who keeps hiring great golf coaches for the lone men’s Division I program his school sponsors, only to lose them to Southeastern Conference schools (Jim Kelson to Tennessee, Jay Seawell to Alabama). Clearly something had to be going on at Augusta State for a power conference to keep plundering the program for coaches.
“I’ve heard people say this was a Cinderella type of deal,” Bryant said. “But we’ve had one of the best programs in the country for 10, 15 years. You hear all the time about the arms race in intercollegiate athletics — the more you spend, the better your program will be.
“We’ve proven you can spend just enough and get it done. Because in the end, it’s all about the players.”
On this day, Augusta State — a team that consists of unheralded Georgia prep players and the odd international recruit — stood tall with the AJCA All-Americans and Walker Cup players Oklahoma State trotted out.
If anything was surprising about the outcome, it was the way the Jaguars went about it. Augusta State’s Patrick Reed, who played Peter Uihlein, the world’s No. 1-ranked amateur, and Henrik Norlander, who battled All-American Morgan Hoffman, took them both out early.
Reed won four of the first six holes to go 4-up on Uihlein, went 5-up on No. 10 and won 4 and 2. Norlander, who rammed a 20-foot birdie putt into the back of the cup at No. 1 to set the tone in his match, was 6-up on Hoffman through eight holes and won 5 and 4.
“I wanted to be aggressive,” said Norlander, the native of Sweden who played solid golf all week. “This was the last match. I didn’t want to leave this place with any regrets.”
After nine holes, with those two matches getting out of reach for Oklahoma State, and the Cowboys’ Sean Einhaus and Tway seemingly in control of their matches, the focus quickly shifted to OSU’s Trent Whitekiller and Augusta State’s Taylor Floyd.
Floyd was so sick, with what doctors determined was an intestinal virus, he almost scratched from Saturday’s semifinal match, but he played and won. He still felt ill on Sunday, but he received an IV in the Honors clubhouse that propped him up, along with a little pep talk he gave himself.
“To be honest, I didn’t think I was going to be to play,” Floyd said. “But I told myself to man up. This was the national championship. I had to go out there and give it everything I had left.”
Floyd had plenty left. He led his match through 12 holes, and fought back after Whitekiller took a 1-up lead with a par on the par-3 14th. Floyd squared things with a birdie at the par-3 16th and got another boost, not from an IV, but from adrenaline.
Had his point been needed, Floyd was on the par-5 17th green in two with 30 feet for an eagle, and Whitekiller had a 50-footer for birdie.
“I told him afterward I’ll never forget as long as I live what he did out there the last two days,” Gregory said. “For him to not just play, but to win a match, and then be in position to possibly win again today. … It was incredible.”
Incredible would be a good word to describe what Krywulycz did. He was 4-down to Tway, who has fashioned an impressive match play record in his junior and amateur career, after the 11th hole. But he won No. 12 with a par and 13, 14 and 15 with birdies to square the match.
In Saturday’s semifinals, Krywulycz had been roughed up by Florida State’s Seath Lauer, 4 and 3, and he lost his first-round match to Georgia Tech’s James White, so even Gregory had written off the match after Krywulycz had fallen so far behind Tway.
“I thought I needed to be with Taylor’s match and get him to the house,” Gregory said.
As it turned out, neither Floyd nor Krywulycz needed help. On the first playoff hole, Krywulycz hit a perfect drive down the middle and a cautious approach to about 25 feet. Tway conceded Krywulycz’s par putt.
From about 20 feet, Tway put a bit too much pace on his birdie putt, which rolled four feet past the hole. With his teammates barely able to watch, Tway sized up the putt and put a solid stroke on the ball, but it slipped off to the left, and Augusta State players stormed the green to hug Krywulycz.
“I didn’t want him to miss that putt,” Krywulycz said. “He was as nice a bloke as I’ve ever played with, a gentleman all day. I didn’t want the national championship to be decided with a missed putt. Nobody deserves to have that on their shoulders.”
The Jaguars will carry a different kind of burden into next year — defending national champions. All five starters return.
“We’ll worry about that next year,” Krywulycz said. “Right now, this means a lot. It’ll mean more next week, and more the week after. We worked so hard to get here, but we won’t stop working hard now that we’ve won the national championship.”