OOLTEWAH, Tenn. — Oklahoma State golf coach Mike McGraw has no great speech planned, as his Cowboys, winners of the stroke play qualifying portion of the NCAA Championships at The Honors Course on Thursday, prepare for Friday’s first round of match play.
“You don’t have to say anything,” McGraw said minutes after the Cowboys had overtaken second-round leader Florida State with a 5-under-par round that left them 14 under for 54 holes, four shots clear of the Seminoles. “They know what they need to do. Three of the kids on this team were in that locker room at Inverness last year.”
McGraw was referring to last year’s NCAA Championships. It was the first year of the tournament’s new format — 54 holes of stroke play followed by three rounds of match play — and the Cowboys smoked the field in qualifying, winning by 13 shots.
But all that bought them was a chance to play Georgia, which was seeded eighth but came away with a 3-2 victory in match play.
“Hopefully our guys learned something from that experience that will help them in the first round of match play,” McGraw said.
The Cowboys will play Stanford in the first round of match play. When San Diego’s Alex Ching bogeyed the 18th hole on Thursday, dropping his team to 4-over-par for the tournament, it created a three-way tie for the final qualifying spot with Stanford and Arizona State. Stanford won the playoff on Friday morning.
The individual championship, completed after 54 holes, went to Illinois’ Scott Langley, who had to endure a wait of his own before he was certain of the outcome. He had finished earlier in the day at 10-under after shooting his second-consecutive 68. As it turned out, posting a number and letting the contenders — Ching, Oklahoma State’s Peter Uihlein, Augusta State’s Henrik Norlander — try to catch him was a great strategy.
“This is pretty special,” Langley said. “I’ve worked really hard for it. It’s been a year of ups and downs for me, but I’ve stayed strong throughout the year.”
“He’s had a great year,” Illinois Coach Mike Small said. “Although he hasn’t won, he’s learned a lot about himself — how to handle his expectations and his thoughts. It culminated this week.”
Focused on helping their teams earn qualifying berths, Uihlein, Norlander and Ching couldn’t quite catch Langley.
Ching, the leader after 36 holes for the second straight year, might have had the best chance. A bogey at the short par-4 12th dropped him to 7-under for the tournament, but he quickly regrouped with birdies at the par-3 14th and the tough par-5 15th.
“I was amped up after that,” Ching said.
Perhaps too amped up. He tried to hit a three-quarter 8-iron to the par-3 16th, but pulled his tee shot long and left. The ball rolled into a pot bunker behind the green and he couldn’t save par.
Ching came back again with a two-putt birdie at the par-5 17th. A birdie at No. 18 would have tied him for the championship and put his team safely into match play.
But Ching’s tee shot got away from him at the 18th and landed in the right rough. He had to hit a cut shot around trees to get to the green, but the ball landed in rough just left of the green. His pitch barely got onto the putting surface and rolled about 25 feet from the hole.
“There’s no person on earth I’d rather have putting that ball than Alex,” San Diego Coach Tim Mickelson said.
But Ching’s putt drifted right, dropping him to 8-under and a tie for second with Uihlein. Ching closed with a 73.
The last player to have a shot at catching Langley was Uihlein, but when he could only manage a par at No. 17, his bid was all but over. Uihlein shot a final-round 71.
Now comes the team match play, a whole new tournament.
“You have to completely change gears, and that’s not easy to do,” said Florida State Coach Trey Jones, whose team shot a 4-over-par 292 on Friday and wound up second, four shots behind OSU.
“We’ll get our guys mentally ready to play the course and decide whether to play the course or their man [in match play]. The choice is up to them, but you can’t do both.”
In Friday’s match play, Oklahoma State plays Stanford; No. 2 Florida State plays No. 7 Texas Tech; No. 3 Georgia Tech plays No. 6 Augusta State; and No. 4 Washington plays No. 5 Oregon.