BRADENTON, Fla. -- And then there were two.
Five days, 30 teams, 156 players and more than 55 hours of golf, and a mere two teams are left standing. The Tuesday afternoon semifinals pitted SEC rivals UGA versus LSU and Illinois against Southern California. The Tigers will be heading back to the finals for the first time since 1955. The Trojans will be heading there for the first time in school history.LSU’s once-storied golf program has, for the most part, been an afterthought until the Chuck Winstead era began in the 2005-06 season. The Tigers head coach has revitalized a program that hasn’t made a finals appearance since they won it in 1955.
“LSU golf has struggled for awhile,” Winstead said. “We had John Peterson, Andrew Loupe and some of those guys, but these guys are able to stretch the bar a little further. As they do that they accomplish a little bit more. They should be excited.”
Now the Tigers are at the forefront of the NCAA golf world. They are fresh off their first SEC Championship in 28 years. Considering that the SEC sent three schools (LSU, Georgia and Vanderbilt) to the quarterfinals this season, it was no easy task. They made it to their second consecutive semifinals, where they lost last year. This year, they made sure they did not.
Zach Wright was a big part of that. Wright was chasing the individual championship over the first three days of the tournament. Monday, he stumbled a bit by going 3-over and missing out on his chance to make a final run at Bryson Dechambeau.
Wright bounced back and won both of his matches in convincing form. His performance in the semis saw him emerge victorious after just 12 holes.
“Mookie [DeMoss of UGA] didn’t come out with his best stuff today,” Wright said. “Seeing that, I kept trying to hit the center of the green.
"I chipped really well today, I got it up and down and made a bunch of pars. It wasn’t anything special, that’s all I had to do.”
The Tigers are now one step closer to the coveted championship. While they show no arrogance, they exude the confidence needed to take home the title.
“Before we got here, we knew that we could compete with anyone,” Wright said. “Our five guys can stack up with any five guys in the nation. We were pretty confident. We need to just keep doing what we were doing, and it is working out so far.”
For USC, getting to Bradenton was business as usual. This is the Trojans 56th team trip to the national championships and their 9th in a row. They are no stranger to the field, but they are somewhat a stranger to match play. The only time that the Trojans experienced the championship structure with three rounds of match play was in its conceptual season. That year they were bounced in the quarterfinals.
Now they not only made the semis, but won it. Perhaps that is because this year there is a bit of redemption in the air. The Trojans left the 2014 championships in last place, 30th out of the 30 participants. This year they are going for the complete opposite.
“Rico and I have a chip on our shoulder finishing last last year, I’m sure Coach does, too,” senior Eric Sugimoto said. “It was pretty embarrassing. This is a way for us to get some redemption.”
It started to look as if the Trojans were overmatched by the highly-ranked Illini after upsetting the No. 2 Commodores earlier in the day. Through the first seven holes, it looked like the No. 4 Illini would make it to the finals after knocking on the door for the past five years. But then Rico took over.
Sophomore Rico Hoey has been their go-to all season. When USC needed a big win, Rico was there. Thus far in the tournament, it has been a group effort. Despite fast starts from Sugimoto and junior Bobby Gojuangco, the Trojans were trailing. Hoey was mired in a fight with Illinois’ Charlie Danielson but he was down … until the 7th hole.
The rain that had damped the earlier part of the round had subsided. Hoey took off his wet hat, and it started the motor. He birdied the par-5 7th and from there didn’t look back.
“On 5, I thought I was ready to kick start it. I hit my first green on the 5th hole and then 3-putted and we tied. Sixth hole we tied again,” Hoey said. “I go to my third shot [on 7] and I see my coach trying to pump me up, so I was like, ‘Okay, it’s go time.’
"I took off my hat because it was really wet. I knocked it on, hit a 20-footer and started rolling. I realized if I could get back to even then it’s a game now.”
The hat didn’t go back on. The momentum changed entirely. He would fight back to square it up and then win the 11th, 12th and 13th hole, never looking back and defeating Danielson.
“The first three holes I felt rocky,” Hoey. “Charlie is a really good player. It’s hard putting on pressure when you’re missing greens. Once you start hitting greens it was a lot easier, and it took the pressure off me.”
Now, the Trojans are heading to their first finals in school history. They can be the young, upstart group that finally hangs the banner at USC after 56 other teams have tried to do so.
”This is something we all dreamed about,” Sugimoto said. “We’re making it a reality. The talent was there. Flashes of brilliance were everywhere you looked. Our team is really deep and we have a lot of great players.”
“It hasn’t sunk in yet,” Hoey added. “We’re just trying to stick to our game plan and keep rolling with it. That’s all we can do.
"I know these guys can do it. We’ve been working hard ever since we got into school last August. Right now, we’re just having a good time.”