By Tyler Olson
Some people say that stroke play – the format used for in both the Olympics and the PGA Tour – is the most complete all-around test of a golfer’s ability as an individual. Others think that team match play formats like the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup makes for more excitement. Further outside the box, the European Tour has experimented with a “Super Six” format this year that combines stroke play with knockout six-hole matches for the top-24 after 54 holes.
However, they’re all inferior to the thrill-inducing, nerve-testing, team-building marathon that is the NCAA Championship.
The NCAA Championship is a SIX-DAY tournament that pits the top thirty collegiate golf teams in the country against each other in a combination of match play and stroke play in a way that weeds out the best individual players and team units like no other golf format can.
How It Works
Understanding the format of the NCAA Championship is a little bit confusing in theory, but it works naturally in practice. I’ll try my best to explain it clearly here.
The tournament starts with three rounds of stroke play over three days – the 2017 edition of the championship played these rounds Friday-Sunday – culminating in a 54-hole cut that whittles the field down to the top 15 teams and best nine individuals on teams outside of the cut line. Team scores are determined by adding up the lowest four scores from each team’s five starters. A fourth round of stroke play crowns an individual champion and decides the top eight teams that move on to the match play elimination bracket on the fifth and sixth days.
In the matches, all five players are forced to contribute. Teams face off in a series of five one-on-one matches and the first school with three points moves on to the next round.
The quarterfinals – akin to the Elite Eight of golf – is played on the morning of the fifth day and the semifinals in the afternoon. The championship concludes with a final match between the winners of the semifinal rounds on the sixth day. On the seventh, presumably, the golfers rest.
Is this not the coolest golf format you’ve ever heard of? It’s got everything you could ever want – individual superiority, team resilience and match play pandemonium – all packed into a six-day, seven-round festival of golf. If the PGA Tour ran its events each week like the NCAA Championship, I would weigh 400 pounds and be permanently attached to the couch in front of my TV.
A parity machine
This unique format has a way of creating some of the most riveting moments of any golf tournament. Just look to what happened in this year’s NCAA Women’s Championship.
On third day of stroke-play (women only play three rounds before match play begins), Jennifer Kupcho of Wake Forest carried a 2-stroke lead into her second-to-last hole of the day. She lost her second shot on the 17th into the water short of the green then three-putted for seven to drop one shot back of eventual champion, Monica Vaughn of Arizona State.
On the men’s side, Oregon provided viewers with a classic comeback story.
After the third round of stroke play, the defending national champion Ducks sat in 13th place, eight strokes back of eighth place, where they would need to be by the end of the fourth round to advance to match play.
The Ducks went on to rip apart Rich Harvest Farms the next day, scoring 10 strokes better than the field, sliding into the top-eight and securing the fifth seed in the match play bracket.
In the quarterfinals, Oregon got out to a quick start on Oklahoma State before holding off a late charge by the Cowboys to win the match.
For that effort, the Ducks got to face the daunting No. 1 seed, Vanderbilt.
Vanderbilt dominated the field in stroke play, finishing the 13-under, 12 strokes better than second-place Oklahoma and 19 ahead Oregon.
The Ducks took two of the first four points in the semifinal, leaving it all up to Suleman Raza, the same golfer whose 21-hole slugfest with Texas’ Taylor Funk provided the winning point for Oregon’s 2016 national title.
Raza was 1-up in his match heading into the 18th, where he won the hole to finish 2-up and send Oregon, a team that was supposed to be rebuilding this year after losing three of its five starters in last year’s NCAA championship, to its second consecutive finals match.
While the Ducks were unable to beat Oklahoma on Wednesday to secure the NCAA title, their fight through the tournament was a treat to watch.
The future of the game
That so few people, even within the golf world, pay attention to college golf is a tragedy.
Not only is it as fun as any other golf event out there to watch, but it’s a preview of tomorrow’s superstars.
The individual championship regularly produces future legends of the game (Tiger, Phil, Jack and Crenshaw, among others, have won NCAA titles), and the match play format shines a light on golfers destined to leave their mark on the PGA Tour and international competition.
One of the most notable of these is Patrick Reed. He tore up the match play rounds in 2010 and 2011 to lead Augusta State to two consecutive national titles.
In the semifinal of the 2011 championship, Augusta State faced off against Oklahoma State, the team they’d beaten in the previous year’s championship match.
At Karsten Creek Golf Club, OSU’s home course and the site for the 2011 NCAA Championship, Reed and his Augusta State teammates had to deal with a hostile crowd filled with Cowboy fans still salty about the previous year.
Reed was matched against Peter Uihlein, the same player he’d beaten in the 2010 finals and one of the most hyped amateurs in the country. Despite fans up and down fairways in support of Uihlein and OSU, Reed demolished his opponent 8&7.
With that, and his subsequent victory over Harris English to bring home the team’s second straight NCAA Championship, Patrick Reed’s match play legacy, which now includes a 6-2-1 record at the Ryder Cup, began. All thanks to the NCAA Championship.