This week at the Capital City Club's Crabapple Course in Atlanta, the top ranked Cal Men's Golf Team attempts to finish off what has already been the most successful season in NCAA men's golf history with an NCAA Championship. 11 wins in 13 starts (along with a second a third place finish) to post a superhuman .846 winning percentage. Wins against elite competition at the Preview, Isleworth, Southern Highlands, Western and Pac-12 tournaments. Five golfers in Golfweek's Top 25, with at least one individual victory for each team member. However, Max Homa, the team's only senior said in a recent Chronicle interview:
"The record is awesome, but if we don't win NCAAs, it literally means nothing," Homa said. "People are calling us the best team ever, but it doesn't matter if we don't win the national championship."
Standing in the way is the gauntlet of NCAA team match play. In 2009, the NCAA switched from its traditional 72 hole stroke play format, to three days of elimination match play. In just four years under this format, the change has already become known for some exciting, unpredictable results. In the inaugural competition, top ranked Oklahoma State, led by current PGA Tour professionals Rickie Fowler and Morgan Hoffmann, as well as former U.S. Amateur Champion and recent European Tour winner Peter Uihlein, cruised to a dominant 13 stroke top seed finish in stroke play. They were promptly beaten by 8th seed Georgia. The dramatic 18th hole conclusion between Fowler and Georgia senior Brian Harman cemented match play's place as the championship format. From there, the 7th seeded and lightly regarded Texas A&M Aggies snuck through the comparatively easier opposite side of the bracket to take home the trophy.
Although last year's championship at Riviera ended up with a classic chalk final between Alabama and Texas, the intervening years saw unheralded Augusta State achieve a shocking two straight victories, one at the expense of another juggernaut Oklahoma State team playing on its home course. A recent graduate who played in the NCAAs three times and in match play twice told me, "The new format doesn't necessarily decide the best team, at least not at the sport we compete in all year, but there's a lot more drama, it's a lot more stressful, and I think in the end it's more fun."
A typical stroke play round involves managing every shot for four hours and 18 holes, playing entirely against the course and sometimes oneself, to try to make the lowest score possible. Match play, by contrast, involves winning individual holes against a single opponent, reacting hole by hole to the particular circumstances of one's own game and the opponent's game. Strategy shifts from managing total shots to managing hole by hole situations. No matter how poorly one's opponent plays on a single hole, he can only lose one. No matter how well a teammate plays that day, he can only win one. By its nature, match play tests mental elements that are not tested throughout a year of stroke play. It captures momentum in a way that stroke play does not. Its shorter 18 hole format leaves a dominant team far less room for error.
That said, the Cal lineup is filled with impressive match play resumes.
Cal's only senior, the Pac-12 Champion and now NCAA Individual Champion, won three matches at the 2010 U.S. Amateur, before falling in the quarterfinals to Golden Bear alum and former champion Ben An. Last year at Riviera he defeated Alabama All-American Justin Thomas in the semi-finals. The formerly mercurial, but now steady, positive senior leader of this team used to have a disposition that would have been horrible for match play, but his increasing maturity means he will no longer knock himself out of matches when things go poorly.
You can read more about Max here.
Coming off a blueshirt year, the junior-to-be announced his presence at the U.S. Amateur last year by storming his way to the match play final. His winning putt on 18 hit a spike mark and took a right turn, leaving him with a runner-up finish, but the invaluable experience of making a deep match play run in that arena more than makes up for his lack of NCAA match play experience. A long driver of the golf ball, and ultra-consistent ball striker, he will put pressure on his opponent by hitting it close.
You can read more about Michael here.
Another blueshirt junior, Brandon also made a big splash at last year's U.S. Amateur, winning four matches to reach the semi-finals. Although he was 0-2 last year at Riviera, Alabama All-American Cory Whitsett, a beast off the tee, said Brandon "got me a couple times, which never happens." Brandon is one of the longest drivers of the golf ball in the country, which can be a tremendous asset in match play.
The third junior on this team, Joel was a top ranked European Amateur prior to coming to Cal, which should tell you all you need to know about his match play prowess. Europeans grow up playing a lot more match play than U.S. players, in formal and informal competition. A lot of the credit for Augusta State's back to back championships goes to their Euro-heavy lineup. Joel's dissection of Alex Kang to clinch the quarterfinal match at Riviera was a stellar example of match play engineering. He will not be intimidated.
The youngster of this group, Michael may have the least match play experience, but the fact that he went 2-0 last year at Riviera, including taking down Alabama's Bobby Wyatt, one of the best and most confident golfers in the country, speaks volumes. Plus, as the number one ranked player in the country, and a Hogan Award finalist, he is simply really, really good at everything on the golf course.
The Sun Devils secured the last spot in match play by surviving a four team playoff. They have only one player in the top 100, and Cal is a prohibitive favorite to advance. But remember, at the college level excellent golfers and average golfers are separated by only two or three strokes on average over the course of a round, and anything can happen in match play.
Austin Quick (v Weaver) is a sophomore with limited match play experience on a big stage, although he did win four matches against mediocre competition at the 2012 Callaway Match Play event. He is an average player in all areas. Max Rottluff (v Stalter) is a German freshman who has had a steady freshman year. Trey Ka'Ahanui (v Homa) is a long-hitting and athletic freshman with a high ceiling, but who struggles with confidence. He has had a difficult week. Spencer Lawson (v Kim) is a junior transfer with a mediocre track record who has had a mediocre season. John Rahm (v Hagy) is a freshman from Spain who is ASU's best shot at points. He is European, a top-50 player, and started off the week with a blistering 61, so we know he can make birdies out there.
The Crabapple Course
The character of the golf course provides a key backdrop for match play strategy, and the 7319 yard par 70 Capital City Crabapple Course presents two distinct tests. The front nine has surrendered plenty of birdie opportunities this week. Through two rounds it played a full three shots easier than the tougher and longer back nine. Early in the round, players will likely be aggressive, and in many instances need birdies to win holes. However, the closing stretch of 14-18 is brutally long and difficult, so ultimately each match will likely be determined based on which player can avoid mistakes by being calm and poised. These holes include four long par 4s and a long par 3. There is no room for error off the tee, and the greens cannot be short-sided. Pars could very well decide this championship.
The Golf Channel will be televising all NCAA Championship matches. Unfortunately, the television contract does not begin until 2014. However, the NCAA will be streaming live video of the matches -- go to the golf page at the front of ncaa.com and click on the "live" link. We will be posting the direct link here when it becomes active.
You can also follow live scoring at http://www.ncaa.com/content/di-mens-golf-leaderboard and get on-course updates on Twitter from @CalMensGolf.