OOLTEWAH, Tenn. — When the NCAA changed the format of its men’s golf championship in 2009, a comparison was drawn to its men’s basketball tournament.
By using stroke play to reduce a field of 30 teams to eight, then sending that “elite eight” into match play, where the field could be pared to a “final four” and then a championship match. The hope was that, somewhat akin to March Madness, excitement would build along with interest in a tournament that, without a television deal, has been criminally overlooked by the sports loving masses.
If June Madness was what the NCAA was after, that’s what it got on Saturday at the famed amateur golf haven, The Honors Course. When mighty Oklahoma State — winner of 10 national titles, participant in every NCAA Championship since the program’s inception in 1947 — defeated Oregon 3-1-1 and Augusta State, a school that sponsors just one Division I men’s sport, defeated Florida State, 4-1, it set up a Sunday confrontation for which Augusta State coach Josh Gregory had an apt, and recent, comparison.
“It’s Duke versus Butler,” Gregory said. “That’s what people are going to say. And we’ll use that as a rallying cry. We’re constantly searching for respect in the college golf world, playing with a chip on our shoulder. Just like Butler in basketball.
“We’ll use that tomorrow. You better believe that.”
Not that Oklahoma State runs any risk of overlooking the Jaguars. The Cowboys might have the premier program in the sport — the UCLA of college golf, to use another basketball analogy — with every advantage imaginable, but they know budget comparisons don’t win golf tournaments. They saw Augusta State steamroll an excellent Florida State team that finished second in stroke-play qualifying in this tournament and had been playing its best golf in the postseason.
No, the Jaguars won’t be overlooked.
And Augusta State won’t take a reverential approach to the Cowboys, not with the emotional Gregory spouting his rallying cries and making statements like this one:
“I told my players going into this tournament that I thought there were only two teams as good as us in the whole country, one through five,” Gregory said. “One of them is Stanford. And the other’s Oklahoma State.”
The Jaguars will get their chance to make Gregory a prophet on Sunday. But whatever happens then, it should take nothing away from their gutsy performance on Saturday. Two players epitomized Augusta State’s effort.
The first was Taylor Floyd, who battled an illness on Saturday. Gregory’s eyes well up when he recounts the conversation he had with Floyd before his match began.
“I told him he didn’t have to go,” Gregory said. “This is for the national championship and all that, but it’s a kid’s health we’re talking about. I didn’t want to risk putting him out there, but he wanted to play.”
And play Gregory did. Paired against Florida State’s birdie machine Wesley Graham, Taylor took a quick 2-up lead with a par at the par-4 1st hole and a birdie at the par-5 2nd and just tried to hold on. A two-hour rain delay in the middle of the match was a blessing for Taylor, who saw a doctor, pumped himself with fluid and any food his queasy stomach could handle, and rejoined the fray.
Graham fought back to square the match with a par at the par-4 12th, but Floyd regrouped with birdies at No. 14 and 15 to go 2-up. Graham cut the lead to 1-up with a birdie at the par-5 17th, but Floyd had one last gasp in him — a birdie at No. 18 that sealed a 2-up victory.
“I don’t know how the kid finished,” Gregory said. “I tried to tell him everything I could think of, you know, ‘Tiger winning the U.S. Open on one leg,’ or ‘beware the wounded warrior.’ But when you’re that sick, you don’t want to hear any of that stuff. The kid’s just a competitor. I get emotional just thinking what he did out there today.”
Augusta State also counted a 4-and-3 victory from Carter Newman over FSU’s Michael Hebert and Patrick Reed’s 1-up victory over Brooks Koepka, but the other key match was Henrik Norlander’s 3-and-1 dispatching of Drew Kittleson.
Norlander was 2-down before he knew what hit him, but rallied with birdies at Nos. 4 and 7 to square the match. He took a 1-up lead with a birdie at No. 10, but gave the advantage back playing field hockey in the big bunker at the par-5 11th.
Norlander reached back after that, winning No. 12 with a birdie to go 1-up, then hitting a 7-iron to two feet at the par-4 15th, perhaps the toughest hole at The Honors.
“I was a little nervous there,” Norlander said. “[Kittleson] had hit his [approach] shot to about 20 feet. You expect the unexpected in match play, so I knew he would make his birdie putt. I had to get it close.”
The birdie gave Norlander a 2-up lead, and he closed out the match in dramatic fashion, holing a wedge from 80 yards for eagle at the par-5 17th.
Just as it did in Friday’s first-round matches, Oklahoma State got an early lift from a player on a birdie binge. This time it was senior Trent Whitekiller, who bludgeoned Oregon’s Isaiah Telles into submission with six birdies in his first seven holes. That pushed him to a 7-up lead.
“I make lots of birdies,” Whitekiller said. “I just take dead aim and try to make as many birdies as I can. That’s how I grew up.”
Oregon’s Jack Dukeminier took out OSU’s Sean Einhaus in the first match of the day, and the Cowboys’ Kevin Tway lost a 4-up lead on the back nine and actually headed to the 16th hole 1-down. So late in the match, the outcome still hung in the balance.
But Oklahoma State coach Mike McGraw could take comfort in the fact his two big guns, 2009 Walker Cuppers Peter Uihlein and Morgan Hoffman, were around to close out the match. Uihlein led throughout his match with Daniel Miernicki, but holding just a 1-up lead through 11, he knew he had to get busy. He won No. 12 with a par to go 2-up, then ended the proceedings on the par-3 16th with another par after firing right at the flag.
That left it up to Hoffman, who had his hands full with Oregon All-American Eugene Wong. Wong was 1-up through seven holes, but Hoffman drastically altered his fortunes with three straight birdies at Nos. 8-10 to take a 2-up lead.
Hoffman went to 3-up with a bogey at No. 15, and Wong was all but finished.
Hoffman, who competed for the U.S. Walker Cup team and the Palmer Cup team in 2009, is a natural at match play.
“The [international] competition definitely prepares you for something like this,” he said. “I’m really confident in match play, and I love it. I’m an aggressive player, so it plays to my strength.”