OOLTEWAH, Tenn. — In the 2009 NCAA Championships, Oklahoma State won the 54-hole stroke play portion of the tournament by 13 shots but was quickly booted from match play by Georgia.
That experience was still on the Cowboys’ minds on Friday. A day earlier, they had rallied at The Honors Course to pass Florida State and once again claim the stroke play competition in the NCAA finals. But just like a year ago, all that accomplishment bought them was a first-round match against another tough opponent, Stanford, the second-seeded team in this tournament.
Suffice it to say Oklahoma State didn’t want history to repeat itself, and it did not. Lifted by 5-and-4 victories from Sean Einhaus and Kevin Tway and a come-from-behind win by Trent Whitekiller, the Cowboys officially banished any residual regret from 2009 with a 3-2 victory over the Cardinal.
It was fitting, too, that Einhaus, who had zero fun in stroke play, shooting rounds of 75-75-76, was the Cowboy who set the early tone of the match.
As he stuck his first tee in the ground against Stanford’s Joseph Bramlett, Einhaus was still in a nasty mood.
“I was mad at myself,” Einhaus said. “I felt like I’d let my team down and that I owed them something. I was determined to win, and I knew I’d win.”
There’s apparently much to be said for the power of positive thinking. Einhaus looked like a prophet from the first shot he struck, a booming drive down the middle of the par-4 1st hole that left him a flip wedge to the green. He hit his approach to three feet, made the putt for birdie, and the rout was on.
He went 2-up with a birdie at the par-5 2nd, 3-up with a par at No. 4, 4-up with a birdie at the par-5 6th and 5-up with a par at the par-4 7th. If there were a mercy rule in match play, it would have been invoked at that point.
Likewise, Tway was having his way with Sihwan Kim, though it took him until the back nine to pull away. Already 2-up, he won 11 and 12 with birdies and No. 13 with a par. The match ended at No. 14.
“Sean got on top early, and that was big for him because he had a hard time in stroke play,” Oklahoma State coach Mike McGraw said. “And last year, Kevin felt the same thing happen to him that he did to his opponent today.
“The guys in the matches behind them obviously knew things had gone pretty well when their teammates were watching their matches with big smiles on their faces.”
After OSU had been staked to a solid lead with those two lopsided victories, it was up to just one more Cowboy to close things out. That turned out to be Trent Whitekiller, whose match was the polar opposite of those played by Einhaus and Tway.
Whitekiller found himself 3-down after 5 holes, but he rallied to square the match by No. 12. He took a 1-up lead with a par at No. 13 and clung to it the rest of the way.
Not even a rain delay could derail Whitekiller, who’s perhaps the most laid back Cowboy. He hit a drive in the fairway at No. 18, but the siren sounded to clear the course before he could hit his approach. After a short delay, he came back to his ball, hit what he called a “stock” 5-iron from 197 yards to within 25 feet and two-putted for a par and the 1-up win.
“After I got down, I just told myself to trust my swing and my putter,” Whitekiller said. “I knew I’d be OK.”
McGraw was obviously pleased to have gotten past what had proven to be an insurmountable obstacle the year before, but he was matter of fact after Stanford had been vanquished.
“We came here with a goal in mind,” he said. “We accomplished the first part of that goal by winning the stroke-play portion of this tournament. And we beat a strong opponent in the first round of match play. But there’s still golf to be played. There are no bad teams in this tournament.”
In the day’s other matches, Oregon beat Washington, 3-2, Augusta State surprised Georgia Tech, 3-2, and Florida State, which finished second in stroke play, beat Texas Tech, 4-1.
If Oregon coach Casey Martin could have scripted his team’s match with Pac-10 rival Washington, he would have written it exactly the way it transpired.
To no one’s surprise, two of the top teams from the nation’s toughest golf conference battled one another on even terms, each winning two matches to set the stage for a pair of first-team All-Americans to decide the outcome. It lessened the drama not a bit that Oregon’s Eugene Wong and Washington’s Nick Taylor are both Canadians and have been friendly adversaries for years.
Their match mirrored their team’s match; it was tighter than a U.S. Open fairway throughout. Taylor took a 1-up lead with birdie at the par-3 third hole, and Wong squared the match with a birdie at the par-4 9th.
Then came the separator, if you could call it a separator.
Both players missed the green at the par-4 10th, and Wong looked to be in more trouble after his approach found the right greenside bunker. Taylor chipped to about six feet and looked to be in control after Wong blasted his shot to about 18 feet away.
“It was a slider,” Wong said of his putt. “When I made it and Nick missed, I knew that was my chance. I wanted to keep a 1-up lead the rest of the way.”
And that’s exactly what the unflappable Wong did, even when, by his own admission, “my heart started racing.”
Wong’s heart rate definitely quickened on the par-5 17th, after Taylor found the fairway and hit a towering 3-wood to within 30 feet of the hole. Wong’s ball was in the left rough.
“When I saw Nick’s ball land on the green, I knew I had to put a good swing on mine,” Wong said.
With a deft swing of a hybrid club, Wong lashed his ball onto the green, about 40 feet from the hole. His first putt nestled to about two feet.
Taylor, meanwhile, missed his eagle putt and had a foot and a half for birdie. Wong sank his putt, Taylor made his, and they walked to the 18th tee, Wong still 1-up.
Taylor seemingly grabbed the momentum again when his approach stopped 15 feet from the hole at 18 and Wong’s shot ended up on the back left fringe, 45 feet away. Once again, Wong putted his ball to within two feet. When Taylor missed his birdie, Wong drained his par putt to win the match.
“No doubt,” Martin said when asked if Wong would have been his choice from among his players to close out the match with a tough two-putt from 45 feet. “If Wong’s got any nerves, I haven’t seen them yet. He’s in control of his golf ball at all times.”
Martin, who played for Stanford, hated to eliminate a fellow Pac-10 team until the final. Then again, he didn’t hate it that much.
“I’m elated we got by them,” Martin said. “They’d gotten the best of us the last couple of years. This match was typical of the way these two teams have battled. It was just a dogfight.
“The last match was a classic. There was some PGA Tour level golf being played out there.”
In Saturday’s matches, Oregon plays Oklahoma State and Florida State takes on Augusta State.