Little Augusta State takes its place among sports' biggest underdog champions

Little Augusta State takes its place among sports’ biggest underdog champions

Augusta State beat 10-time national champion Oklahoma State in the final match.
Darren Carroll/SI

“It’s Duke versus Butler,” coach Josh Gregory told ­reporters last Saturday in Tennessee, using a ­recent NCAA basketball showdown to frame the ­impending clash between two similarly mismatched teams at the NCAA Division I ­Championship — his ­never-sniffed-a-national-title Augusta State team and the win-’em-in-bunches golfers of Oklahoma State. Smiling indulgently, the reporters thumbed through their notebooks and crossed out earlier Gregory quotes comparing the Jaguars’ underdog status to David and Goliath, Truman vs. Dewey, the Miracle on Ice U.S. Hockey team and — if I’m not-misreading my notes — the Hungarian resistance to 80,000 Ottoman warriors during the siege of Eger in 1552.

A few hours later Gregory served the humble pie to his sixth­seeded players, who were fed so much of it this season that they burp during trophy ceremonies. “He reminded us that you never hear about Augusta State,” sophomore Patrick Reed said, as the team’s supporters celebrated in the lengthening shadows of the Honors Course. “He kept pointing out the things we never get — the media attention, the respect. All week he kept saying, ‘Nobody expected you to be here.'”

Gregory was laying it on pretty thick, considering that Augusta State, a Division II school in every sport but golf, was ranked as high as No. 2 in the weekly college polls. The Jaguars were fifth when they drove into Chattanooga on May 31, and they were sixth in a field of 30 after three rounds of stroke play that eliminated 22 teams and set the brackets for match play. Three days later, after dispatching highly regarded Georgia Tech and over­achieving Florida State, Gregory’s gang took one last drag on the underdog pipe and knocked out heavily favored, top-ranked, medal-winning Oklahoma State 3-1-1. “We’re national champions,” a dazed Gregory said on Sunday afternoon. “This program is legitimate.”

No one was arguing. To win their first national title, Augusta State’s golfers had to bring down an Oklahoma State program that has won the NCAA crown 10 times and regularly turns out Tour players. This year’s Cowboys won five intercollegiate tournaments behind fellow Walker Cuppers Morgan Hoffmann and Peter Uihlein, son of Acushnet chairman and CEO Wally Uihlein, and Kevin Tway, son of PGA Championship winner Bob Tway. “If it was stroke play, we’d be gone, they were that far ahead,” said Reed, acknowledging Oklahoma State’s 13-shot advantage on his team in the stroke play.

But the new match play format suits in-your-face competitors like Augusta’s Henrik Norlander, a tall Swede who says his dream foursome would include John Daly, Tiger Woods and Vijay Singh. Norlander, who won all three of his matches, caught everyone’s attention last Saturday by battering Florida State’s Drew Kittleson with six birdies before holing an 84-yard wedge shot on the par-5 17th for eagle and a 3-and-1 victory.

Norlander didn’t miss a beat on Sunday, jumping 6 up on Oklahoma State’s Hoffmann through eight holes and cruising to a 5-and-4 win. Reed, once a hot prospect who transferred to Augusta State when he left Georgia after pleading guilty to a charge of underage drinking, handled Uihlein with similar ease, 4 and 2. But the Cowboys countered with Sean Einhaus, who closed out Augusta’s Carter Newman on the 17th hole. Tway, a junior, was 4 up on Mitchell Krywulycz at the turn, so it was pretty clear the match would be decided by the last players out — Oklahoma State’s Trent Whitekiller and Augusta sophomore Taylor Floyd.

Floyd, a 2-up winner on Saturday despite a strength­sapping illness, was a possible Sunday forfeit, but thanks to the Breakfast of Champions (an IV drip at the hospital), he got to the 1st tee on time. It was quite an effort by Floyd, who was all-square through 16 when the unexpected occurred. The Tway-Krywulycz match, all but conceded to the Cowboys, reversed itself. Krywulycz (pronounced Kri-VOLE-itch), a redshirt junior from Australia, evened the match with a par and three birdies on holes 12 through 15 and sent it to extra holes by getting up and down from the greenside rough on 18.

Tway missed a six-foot par putt on the playoff hole, triggering delayed yelps from Augusta fans when they realized that victory was theirs. Krywulycz was more restrained, out of respect for Tway — who pulled his cap down over his eyes as coach McGraw whispered consoling words in his ear. “I didn’t want him to miss the putt,” Krywulycz said. “I didn’t want that to decide a national championship.”

But it did, and now Augusta State can take its place in sports history alongside Jack Fleck, Charismatic, Buster Douglas and the ’68 Jets. Unfortunately, all of Augusta’s players will be back in 2011, rendering their coach’s underdog ploys obsolete. “I’m in trouble next year,” Gregory admitted. “I’ll have to come up with a new game plan.”

He grinned. “It’ll be Goliath versus Goliath.”