Match for the ages
Illini advance after Pieters edges Cal’s Homa in extras
MILTON, Ga. -- No one should have been surprised that the Illinois-California semifinal match in the NCAA Division I Men’s Golf Championships came down to Thomas Pieters vs. Max Homa on Saturday.
After all, Cal’s Homa had just clinched the 2013 NCAA individual medalist honors two days earlier. Pieters of Illinois was the 2012 NCAA individual champion.
So when their teammates split four earlier match-play decisions, it all came down to these two heavyweights to determine which of their teams was going to get to face second-ranked Alabama in Sunday’s championship, which has been moved up two hours to an 8 a.m. ET start time in an effort to avoid inclement weather. Alabama handily defeated Georgia Tech in Saturday’s other semifinal.
Pieters and Illinois eventually prevailed against Homa and Cal, but not without an abundance of drama as the two players matched each other clutch-shot-for-clutch-shot throughout the first 18 holes and then into a playoff. Homa nearly closed it out by chipping in on the first playoff hole, No. 1 on the course, but then succumbed when Pieters made par on the second playoff hole and Homa’s par putt from 7 feet lipped out.
In the end, it appeared Pieters’ free-wheeling approach trumped the pressure-packed, grinding effort that Homa admitted he had to forge.
“I was just having fun,” said Pieters, who rallied from 3-down after nine holes to force the playoff. “That’s why I came here. I wanted to be in this position. I love it.”
Homa, a senior, said he welcomed the position he was in, but that he felt the weight of Cal’s entire season on his shoulders. The Golden Bears were attempting to put a cap on what many, including their own head coach, Steve Desimone, have claimed is the greatest season in the history of college golf.
A large contingent of supporters from both schools also followed the golfers through much of their match, building in numbers and intensity with each passing hole.
“It was probably like nothing I’ve ever experienced,” Homa said. “It’s hard not to think about what all would go into those last few holes. Mostly I was just thinking about my team.
“I wanted the pressure. I mean, I was embracing it. But that’s a lot to handle. … There were a lot of thoughts I was having that I was trying to block out so I could just go play golf.”
Perhaps it finally got to him on the second playoff hole, but it is difficult to lay any blame at Homa’s feet when he repeatedly made clutch shots and putts to better Pieters on some holes to build his early lead and then to match him when he had to later.
Homa’s undoing, though, was an approach shot from the fairway on the second playoff hole. He hit it long and atop a ridge well above the hole. Pieters, meanwhile, kept his approach in the much more preferable location of below the hole -- even though he hit it from a difficult side-hill lie in the rough.
“I had a bad lie in the rough, but I kept it underneath the hole and gave myself a chance,” Pieters said.
Pieters two-putted from there, while Homa ran his first downhill putt past the hole and had trouble getting it to stop. It finally did at about 7 feet, but then his par attempt lipped out from there as he buried his head in his hands in an emotional scene.
Even Illinois head coach Mike Small said he felt for Homa in the moment, even as Small celebrated the victory for his team with the jubilant Pieters.
“It’s mixed feelings,” Small said. “As a coach and a competitor, I’m fired up. We stood toe-to-toe with the best college team I’ve seen in a long, long time. But as a human being, to see those kids [from Cal] and to see how well they played all year long and even this week, for it to come down to that for them, it’s just tough to see that.
“Now I know what NCAA basketball coaches feel like. That’s kind of what this is.”
Desimone admitted it was a difficult way to see the season end for Homa and the rest of the Cal players.
“Max has given his all for this program. And he laid it all out there [Saturday],” Desimone said.
The coach and his player and many of the spectators truly thought Homa had won the match when he hit from a fairway bunker to the fringe of the green and then nearly chipped in from 8 feet on the first playoff hole. But it wasn’t meant to be.
“Max has got a phenomenal short game -- and I can tell you what he was thinking. He said, ‘This is going in.’ And you saw the line. It was right there, maybe 1 or 2 inches short,” Desimone said. “That kind of sums up our day, unfortunately.”
In the end, both players were able to hold their heads high when looking back on their busy day.
“I hit 19 greens [Saturday] out of 20. ... I couldn’t have hit it any better,” Homa said. “I missed a lot of opportunities, but I’m proud of what I did. For how nervous I was, I’m proud of what I did.
“[Pieters] is obviously a great player.”
Only Pieters gets to come back Sunday for more. He admitted that getting this far with his team is more satisfying than winning the individual championship a year ago.
“This is way more fun,” Pieters said. “Going through all this with my team is amazing. You’re around them the whole year -– and then to get this far, it’s crazy.”