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Match-Play Component Evens Playing Field in NCAA Men's Golf Championship
You'd be hard pressed to come up with a plausible argument as to why Oklahoma State University isn't going to win its 11th NCAA Championship this week. The Cowboys are not only ranked the No. 1 college team on every meaningful list, the tournament is being held on their home course where they won the Ping/Golfweek Preview in September by four shots from UCLA, and the 2009 NCAA Central Regional by 22 over Arkansas.
The team has won four of its last five events (eight all season in 12 starts) and will tee it up at Tom Fazio-designed Karsten Creek in Stillwater following its fifth straight victory in the Big 12 Championship in which it beat runner-up Texas A&M by 13 strokes at Prairie Dunes in Hutchison, Kans., and its ninth win at NCAA Regionals following an 18-stroke triumph over Colorado State University at Colorado National GC.
Leading the team, which will be making its 65th straight appearance in the national championship, will be Peter Uihlein - the current U.S. Amateur champion and the No. 1 amateur in the world according to the R&A World Amateur Golf Ranking, and No. 2 college player on the Golfweek/Sagarin list. OSU also boasts the third-ranked player on the R&A list, Kevin Tway, and No. 8 Morgan Hoffman.
For the two remaining spots coach Mike McGraw has a number of quality players from which to choose but, if he sticks with the side that won so convincingly in Colorado, he will go to freshman Talor Gooch and sophomore Sean Einhaus. Gooch, currently averaging 73.57 a round, finished third last week and has played all 12 events for the Cowboys in 2010-11. Einhaus, who has won 13 national amateur titles in his native Germany, has played seven tournaments this season with a stroke average of 73.27. He tied for fourth in Colorado.
It's clear then that the stats and stories point to an OSU victory. But then similarly significant numbers have suggested much the same for the last couple of years, and yet Oklahoma State hasn't won the NCAA Championship since 2006.
OSU's undoing has been the same thing that allowed unheralded PGA Tour journeymen like Jeff Maggert, Keith Sutherland and Steve Stricker (long before he was a top-five player) to become world champions. It is that which made it possible for less-than-prolific winners such as Jim Turnesa, Walter Burkemo and Bob Hamilton to become major champions. It was largely responsible for the man (Tiger Woods) who won 14 professional majors in 11 years compiling such an unimpressive Ryder Cup record. In short, it's the form of the game which, though potentially very exciting, can make the formbook irrelevant.
Match play was reintroduced to the NCAA Championship in 2009 after a 44-year absence. Now, three rounds of medal play are used to identify the top eight teams which advance to the match-play bracket while the other 22 go home. In both 2009 and '10, Oklahoma State went into the match play section having led through 54 holes, but both times lost out to teams who surely would not have been a match for them had the old format of 72 stroke-play holes remained in place. Two years ago, OSU lost in the first round to Georgia, while last year it came up against an inspired Augusta State team, led by sophomore Patrick Reed, which beat the favorites 3½-1½ in the final to win its first national championship.
The change has not come without controversy. Besides the fact the team universally considered the best in the country has not won the national title since match play was reinstated, and that the winner of the last two championships - Texas A&M at Inverness Club in Toledo, Ohio, and Augusta State at the Honors Course in Ooltewah, Tenn., began the week as long shots, the increase in interest and drama has not materialized to the degree the NCAA hoped it would.
Of course, interest levels would go through the roof (a fairly low roof admittedly - this is college golf remember) if local boys Oklahoma State progressed to the championship match and there met the No. 2-ranked team, UCLA. Then, if the first four matches were shared and the result hinged on the final encounter in which Uihlein was up against Patrick Cantlay, the top-ranked college golfer in the country and the player Uihlein beat in the semifinals in last year's U.S. Amateur at Chambers Bay, one quick look through the telescope would confirm the NCAA's stars had indeed aligned in perfect formation. It would be the ideal ending for the 114th playing of the event.
To reach Sunday's final, teams will not only need to be loaded with talent, but also possess prodigious stamina and saint-like patience. Karsten Creek, opened in 1994 and named after Ping Golf founder Karsten Solheim, who contributed generously to the OSU golf program, will be 7,416 yards long and full of potential disaster holes. None will be more intimidating than the 471-yard 17th, which played to an average of 4.97 during the NCAA Championship in 2003. That year, Clemson won the team title with a four-round total (pre-match play) of 1,191 - 39-over-par, and Arizona State freshman Alejandro Canizares was the only player to finish under par, completing the 72 holes in 1-under 287.
Given the unpredictability of match play (not to say golf itself), there is a number of potential winners besides Oklahoma State and UCLA. Alabama, led by fourth-ranked Bud Cauley and No. 10 Cory Whitsett, has won five times this season; Florida features three players ranked inside the top 18 - Bank Vongvanij, Phillip Choi and Andres Echavarria; and the equally classy Georgia Tech team has three players in the top 14 - Kyle Scott, JT Griffin and James White.
Conference champions USC (Pac-10) and Illinois (Big Ten) are peaking at the right time, and who's to say Augusta State can't repeat its 2010 victory? The Jaguars have seven top-three finishes from 10 events this season and four members of the team that won the NCAA Championship last year will likely start this week, with Olle Bengtsonn replacing Taylor Floyd.
At the other end, it's tough to see either Kennesaw State or Colorado State mounting much of a challenge. 57th-ranked CSU, whose assistant coach Brian Guetz played for Oklahoma State, is making its first appearance since 1999, and Kennesaw State - half an hour from Atlanta and ranked 44th - will be the only team making its debut. The Owls have four wins this season, including the Atlantic Sun Conference title, and coach Jay Mosely insists his team won't be there just to make up the numbers. But going up against the top programs in the nation and beating them on so long and demanding a course will surely be a huge task.
But if they can make it to match play, anything's possible.
For live scoring, visit http://www.ncaa.com/content/division-i-mens-team-leaderboard.