BRADENTON, Fla. -- Sun-soaked necks. Sweat-drenched uniforms. Eight rounds of golf. The 2015 NCAA championships are officially in the books at The Concession Golf Club, and the LSU Tigers are the winners for the first time in 60 years.
Winning this championship is a feat like no other. Including Thursday’s practice round, one very necessary as this course is not played often by many of this week’s contestants, the victor and runner up needed eight rounds of golf in seven days to decide the champion. Add in the Florida summer heat, and then it becomes a physical grind to see who can simply outlast who.
This year saw an extra round of 18 added to the tournament. When match play entered the equation in 2009, stroke play lasted for 54 holes to decide which 15 teams made the cut from 30 and, in turn, name the individual champion. This year, they extended it to 72 holes. How did that affect LSU?“If you don’t play great,” LSU head coach Chuck Winstead said, “you’re not going to be around. Whether you play 54, 72, 36, 108. It doesn’t matter. ... They played phenomenal golf coming down the stretch. Same format -- nobody looked like they were tired. That was special.”
The opportunity each team has to rise victorious in the NCAA championship is second to none. If you can play your way into Monday’s Round of 15, you set yourself up for the race for eight. And in match play, if you get hot, it’s anyone’s ball game.
No. 5-ranked Southern California -- after taking down No. 4 Texas -- became the most recent team to knock off the No. 1 seed, this time it was the Illini. USC head coach Chris Zambri spoke of how difficult is was to win the sport's most coveted title, but he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Match play is over-the-top exciting,” Zambri explained of the tournament’s format for the past seven years. “There has always been the debate on the pros and the cons. It’s just so fun and riveting. It’s a good thing, it’s more interesting.”
LSU also had no easy path to the finals as the No. 7-ranked team entering match play. The Tigers first took down the Hunter Stewart-led No. 2 Vanderbilt Commodores and then the No. 3-ranked Georgia Bulldogs.
“I don't think the seeding makes a bit of difference at all to be honest,” LSU senior Stewart Jolly said. “The eight that make match play are playing the best at that moment and time. They’re a bunch of really, really good teams, and all the teams that make match play are playing great.”
They say professional golf is becoming a young man’s game. That was also evident in the tournament as new faces crept into the spotlight. The Illini charged to the top of the stroke-play leaderboard behind the play of two superb freshman in Dylan Meyer and Nick Hardy. Hardy put the Illini in the semifinals behind his match-deciding putt against UCLA on a very difficult 18th green.
“My freshman,” Illinois head coach Mike Small said. “I want them to learn. Win or lose, I want them to learn. I think they both did. In that position [Meyer was fourth and Hardy was the fifth in their quarterfinals victory against UCLA] Dylan played pretty well and learned something, and Nick by all means learned a lot.”
Small’s confidence is so strong in his future Illinois mainstays that he jokingly promoted Meyer and Hardy after stroke play.
“I changed that last night,” Small said. “I told them they're sophomores now.”
Despite senior Eric Sugimoto playing strongly for USC all week, the championship saw a changing of the guard of the Trojans. Sophomore Rico Hoey is quickly becoming the familiar face for USC, while freshman Sean Crocker and Jonah Texeira played well beyond their years, and now have the experience of seasoned veterans leading their program to its first finals appearance.
This year’s golf championships came to an end and did not see the nation’s No. 1-ranked Florida State Seminoles make it to the match play round. It didn’t see the nation’s top golfer (Stanford’s Maverick McNealy) nor Georgia Tech’s Ollie Schniederjans (last year’s individual runner up and considered the top amateur in golf) compete for the individual championship. Instead LSU won its first championship in 60 years and saw SMU’s Bryson Dechambeau -- ranked 28th in the field -- hoist the individual crown.
We learned what we already knew about college golf this past week: you can expect the unexpected. And in regards to the heat and grind of a long tournament, now-champion head coach Winstead said it best:
“It’s the national championship. Tired doesn't work.”