It’s been a long time coming.
Head coach Chuck Winstead’s journey to restoring the LSU golf program is now a reality. The LSU Tigers are the 2015 national champions.
It has been 60 years since their last title. During that time, Winstead was a player in the late 80s and early 90s and experienced little as far as team results go. He became head coach 10 years ago, and almost instantly the program began trending in the right direction.
“When you’re 88th or 87th in the country, it’s hard to be confident,” Winstead explained of the situation he walked into at LSU. “They were better than their ranking but they didn’t have a plan. That first year we won the first tournament we played, they were just eager to get out there and play.”
Now, Winstead took a program that was ranked 88th only 10 years ago and hoisted the coveted cational championship trophy. It was a long, grueling challenge that took eight rounds of golf in seven days to decide, but in the end Ben Taylor sunk the match-winning putt on 18 to seal the deal.
“Proud of my guys,” Winstead said. “The Concession Club is a challenging golf course and to be able to play around here the way they did this week, I’m happy about it.”
Stewart Jolly isn’t the only senior on the Tigers, but he is the only one who has been at LSU for four years. He has seen the slow transformation over his time there, rising from tournament afterthought to back-to-back semi-final appearances. He got to put an SEC championship trophy on his mantle this year -- LSU’s first in 28 years -- and now he gets to add his national championship trophy next to it
“It’s unbelievable,” Jolly said coming off the course with an ear-to-ear grin that wouldn’t leave his face for the next hour. “I’m out there fighting and playing for my brothers. Couldn’t be happier than I am now.
"There’s no doubt if I had to make my decision again, I would pick LSU. This has been the best four years of my life and this is the cherry on top.”
Ben Taylor, a senior who transferred to LSU two years ago, is no stranger to golf championships. He won the DII National Championship with Nova Southeastern in 2012, and now has the honor of being the first to hoist a DI trophy just two seasons later.
While LSU already had two golfers -- Zach Wright and Brandon Pierce -- off the course with victories, the remaining three pairings were getting dicey. USC’s Eric Sugimoto was 1-up on Jolly, freshman Jonah Texeira had cut a three-hole deficit to LSU’s Eric Ricard to a mere one with two holes left, and USC’s junior Bobby Gojuangco had a one-stroke lead on Taylor coming into the 17th hole.
Taylor would crush his second shot on the monster 592-yard par 5 and watch it slowly come back to the pin. He nailed his putt for eagle and headed to the 18th poised for victory.
“I had a 258 pin, downwind,” Taylor said of his big shot. “Hit a 4-iron, hit it really good. Landed on the middle of the green on that crown that kicked it towards the pin. It was perfect. To make that eagle was pretty special.”
The 18th hasn’t been very kind to many people this week. When Gojuangco bogeyed, it was up to Taylor. He sunk his two-putt for par and LSU had won the week.
“You just can’t mess with that green,” Taylor said of the pesky 18th. “You take a 2-putt all day. A par on that hole will always give you a good chance of winning because it’s a brutal hole.”
USC should leave Bradenton with a lot of momentum and their heads held high. They are a young team that will most certainly be back next year. Injected with the right amount of talent and youth, the Trojans are prepared to continue their run. That doesn’t make Wednesday’s finals loss any easier to swallow.
“Second place is better than third,” USC head coach Chris Zambri said of the long week. “It’s tough to get into this position. When you get here, you want to get it done.”
Pac-12 Freshman of the Year Sean Crocker and fellow freshman Jonah Texeira came into The Concession looking to show that it didn’t matter what year they were. All that mattered was that they could play their game and hang with anyone. And that they did.
“It’s been a long journey,” Texeira said. “We were the underdogs. Coming this far is awesome and great and all. We came too close, but that will put fire in our hearts for next year.”
Are the Trojans ready for the next season to start, so they can begin their long journey back to the top and go for the championship in Oregon? Sean Crocker summed it up best -- “That’s an understatement.”