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NCAA D1 Men’s Golf Championship Preview

If you missed out on the Women’s Championship this past week, damnit, what’s wrong with you? Luckily, there’s another chance, as the Men’s Championship begins Friday, May 25th. Let’s get the basics out of the way:

WHEN & WHERE:
Friday, 5/25 through Wednesday, 5/30 at Karsten Creek GC, Stillwater, OK

TV COVERAGE (GOLF CHANNEL):
Monday, 5/28: 4pm to 8pm EST
Tuesday, 5/29: 11am to 1:30pm EST AND 4pm to 8pm EST
Wednesday, 5/30: 4pm to 8pm EST

FORMAT:
156 golfers will begin competition. The field is comprised of 30 qualifying teams (five members each) plus 6 individual qualifiers. Everybody plays 54 holes of stroke play over the first three days, with team standings determined by the best four scores each round. After 54 holes there is a cut down to the top 15 teams plus 9 individuals not on an advancing team. The final 18 holes of stroke play on Monday, May 28th will determine an individual national champion (overall 72-hole medalist) as well as the top 8 teams. These 8 teams will be seeded #1 through #8 and compete in a single elimination, match play tournament (five individual, 18-hole matches, no halves) to crown a national champion. Tuesday, May 29th will be quarterfinal and semifinal matches, and the finals will be on Wednesday, May 30th.

You can follow the scoring in real-time here: http://golfstat.com/


FIELD BREAKDOWN

The 30 teams qualifying for the Championship this week all finished in the top-five at one of six regional sites. Of the 30 top seeds across the six regional sites, 23 of those programs advanced to compete in Stillwater. The most surprising absentees are top-seeded Georgia Tech and LSU, along with second-seeded Cal. The most surprising team to advance through regionals, at least based on their seed, was Augusta (seeded 12th at their regional site). Two other double-digit regional seeds advanced: Central Florida and Iowa State (both 10 seeds). Here then is my attempt to categorize the 30 Championship teams:

*THE* Favorite: Oklahoma State –more on them later, but suffice to say the unanimous #1 ranked team in the final GCAA poll, playing on their home course, will be the undisputed favorites this week.
Next Best: Oklahoma, Texas A&M, and Vanderbilt –all top seeds at regionals and all within the top-5 of the final GCAA ranking.
Power-5 Title Threats: Alabama, Arizona State, Arkansas, Auburn, Baylor, Clemson, Duke, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Oregon, Stanford, Texas, Texas Tech, and UCLA –all these programs were top-5 seeds at their respective regional site and can absolutely win the title this week.
Other Power-5 Programs: Iowa State, Kansas, North Carolina State, and Northwestern –they were all outside the top-5 seeds at regionals. If you enjoy rooting for the house in blackjack, I’d recommend adopting one of these squads for the week.
Rich Tradition: Augusta, BYU, and UNLV — these programs have all won at least one team national championship and will look to play spoiler again this week.
Plucky Underdogs: Central Florida, Kent State, and North Florida –comparative resource disadvantage, plus, they’ve never won a national championship. As was the case last week with the women, I’ll be rooting for the MAC representative, Kent State.

INDIVIDUAL QUALIFIERS:
George Cunningham, Arizona
Pontus Nyholm, Campbell
Kyle Mueller, Michigan
Braden Thornberry, Ole Miss
Joshua McCarthy, Pepperdine
Charles Corner, UTEP


PLAYERS TO WATCH

In an effort to provide you with only the best information, I reached out to a contact on the ground in Oklahoma to assist me with players to keep an eye on. This person, choosing to remain anonymous, has a much deeper knowledge of the collegiate game than yours truly, so I humbly cede the floor to the “Big Righty” (his nickname, not mine):

HEAVYWEIGHTS!

  1. Doug Ghim – Sr. Texas. Winner of the Ben Hogan Award on Monday, Ghim is the latest in a long history of Longhorn greats. Is coming off victories at both Big12 (tie) & NCAA Regionals (Raleigh), was low amateur at the Masters and is ranked #1 amateur in the world.
  2. Norman Xiong – So. Oregon. The Haskins Award favorite, 2017 Western Amateur champion and #3 amateur in the world has won 6 times this season including the NCAA Regional (Stockton). Is an absolute freight train when playing well and sniffing a lead.
  3. Braden Thornberry – Jr. Ole Miss. Hogan Award finalist and defending NCAA Individual Champion will be competing as an individual this week as his team failed to qualify. Holds the all-time Ole Miss wins record with 11, as a Junior. #2 ranked amateur in the world.
  4. Viktor Hovland – So. Oklahoma State. A native of Norway, Hovland is the #7 ranked amateur in the world and has been the model of consistency, finishing in the top 7 in 8 of the previous 9 tournaments with one victory.
  5. Nick Hardy – Sr. Illinois. The 2018 Big10 Player of the Year has finished in the top 10 in 11 of 12 events this season with a win in the Big10 Championship and T4 in NCAA Regional (Columbus).
  6. Matthew Wolff – Fr. Oklahoma State. The hands down best freshman in the country possesses a swing that is as equal unique as it is lethal.  Will be captivating television watching Wolff compete this week and expect him to contend as he has 4 runner-up finishes during the season.
  7. Theo Humphrey – Sr. Vanderbilt. The 2018 SEC Player of the Year is the leader of the #3 Vanderbilt team looking to improve on last years semifinal appearance.  Humphrey finished 3rd in last years NCAA Individual Championship and was a semifinalist in the 2017 U.S. Amateur.
  8. Chandler Phillips – Jr. Texas A&M. 4 wins in 12 events, including winner of the College Station Regional. Ranked #9 amateur in the world and only once finished outside top 15 on the season.
  9. Shintaro Ban – Sr. UNLV. The 2018 Mountain West Player of the Year won 4 of his 13 starts this season, including a blistering -16 (200) at the Mountain West Championship.
  10. Dylan Meyer – Sr. Illinois. Has a knack for the big moment and a stalwart of a match play player.  Has 2 wins on the season to go along with 7 top 10 finishes and is the #6 ranked player in the World Amateur Rankings.

10 MORE TO KEEP AN EYE ON

  1. Kyle Mueller – Sr. Michigan. Will be competing as an individual as his team did not qualify for postseason play. Won the Columbus Regional against a field including Oklahoma State & Illinois.
  2. Stephen Franken – Jr. NC State. Recently named ACC Player of the Year and coming off a T5 in Regionals (Raleigh).
  3. Andy Zhang – So. Florida. Has come on very strong as of late winning both the SEC Championship individual and NCAA Regional (Kissimmee).
  4. Fredrik Nilehn – Sr. Texas Tech. Is the 2018 Big12 Player of the Year. Battled through some injuries this year and is lethal when healthy. From Sweden, is the 16th ranked amateur in the world.
  5. Zachary Bauchou – Jr. Oklahoma State. There are no weaknesses in the 2017 Canadian Amateur champion’s game.
  6. Kristoffer Ventura – Sr. Oklahoma State. Do not let being listed as 4th member of the OSU team fool you, this senior who was co-medalist at Big12s possesses tremendous pop and 4 years of experience around Karsten Creek.
  7. Brad Dalke – Jr. Oklahoma. The leader of the defending national champions, playing in home state, at rival school’s home course. Won the 2013 AJGA PING Invitational at Karsten Creek.
  8. George Cunningham – Sr. Arizona. Qualified as an individual in the Kissimmee Regional and has had a great senior season and risen to inside top 25 in rankings.
  9. Davis Riley – Jr. Alabama. Big hitter that usually shines on tough courses and in big events.
  10. Ryan Gronlund – Jr. Oregon. Has a knack for the spotlight. Birdied the final 4 holes in 2017 to send Oregon into match play, which ultimately led to a runner-up finish. Went out in 29 at Regionals to lead a spirited charge for the Ducks to rally and qualify as the 5th seed in the Stockton Regional.

PROGNOSTICATION

The Big Righty thinks the following teams will make it to the Quaterfinals (no love for my Golden Flashes!):

  1. Oklahoma State. Top ranked team, home course. Will be huge disappointment if they don’t advance out of stroke play.
  2. Oklahoma. Motivated, experienced, arguably the best 5th man of the top 4 teams, which could prove valuable in match play.
  3. Vanderbilt.  Veteran team returning 4 members off the semi-final team last year at Rich Harvest Farms.
  4. Texas A&M. Have been ranked as a top 3 team all season. Will be paired with Oklahoma & Oklahoma State the first 2 rounds which will add a big stage for the Aggies.
  5. Baylor. The Bears possess a solid 1-5 lineup but its most important asset this week is Coach Mike McGraw. McGraw was a coach at Oklahoma State from 1998-2013 and has been a coach on 3 previous national title teams (2 at OSU & 1 at Alabama).
  6. Florida. An explosive team that can be boom or bust. If firing on all cylinders can compete with anybody.
  7. Illinois. Has 2 show ponies in Hardy & Meyer who are as good of a veteran combo as any team possesses. Young in spots 3-5 could be their undoing.
  8. Auburn. The Tigers gained valuable match play experience in route to winning the 2018 SEC Championship. Start 3 underclassmen but their pair of freshmen, Padgett & Mancheno, are talented.

Sleeper Teams that could make a run:

  1. Alabama. The Jay Seawell-led team finished runner-up in the 2018 SEC Championship
  2. Iowa State. A team that is catching fire at the right time finished 4th in the Big12 Championship and 3rd in their Regional (Stockton).

ODDS & ENDS

-Oklahoma State is one of the most successful men’s golf programs in NCAA history. This is due in large part to their former coach (and current AD), Mike Holder. Aside from being the driving force behind the construction of Karsten Creek, Holder won eight national championships at Oklahoma State. He won NCAA titles in four different decades, one of only five coaches in any sport to accomplish such a feat. Additionally, his squads captured 21 conference championships, second only to legendary Kansas basketball coach, Phog Allen, across all sports. Finally, Holder’s squads produced numerous individual champions, an embarrassment of All-Americans, and many notable professional players. Oklahoma State enters this year’s championship as the best team in the country (unanimous #1 ranked team per GCAA, winners of 9 of 12 tournaments this year), competing on their home course, and subjects of a Golf Channel show (“Driven”). All this is to say they will be under immense pressure to win a championship. Anything less will be considered a failure.

-One of the teams looking to play spoiler will be OSU’s hated rival, Oklahoma. The 2nd-ranked Sooners (per GCAA) are the defending national champions, have three members from last year’s squad, and appear to be peaking at the perfect time as they won both the Big12 championship and their Regional tournament. An Oklahoma v. Oklahoma State matchup at some point this week will be crazy good drama.

-Karsten Creek showed out well on TV this past week for the women. With temperatures expected to climb into the 90s each day of the tournament, look for the course to play firm and fast, and the competition to turn into as much a test of endurance and will as it is skill. At least come team play.

-As mentioned briefly up top, the biggest team absences this week are Georgia Tech and LSU. Both were top seeds at Regionals. It marks just the third and fourth time, respectively, since 2009 that a top seed at Regional failed to qualify for the Championships.

-The best players not competing this week are a pair of Pac12 guys, Cal’s Collin Morikawa (4th ranked amateur) and USC’s Justin Suh (5th ranked amateur in the world/Pac12 POY).

-The last time Augusta (nee Augusta State) made the NCAA Championships, some cat named Patrick Reed was helping them win their second of back-to-back national championships in 2011. I wonder what ever happened to that dude?

-Aaron Wise, 21 years old and fresh off his massively impressive win at the Byron Nelson, won the 2016 individual title (his Oregon Ducks won the team title). What’s scary is Wise could be competing this week at Karsten Creek had he not decided to turn pro early.

-Speaking of former champions, last year’s winner, Braden Thornberry, is back to defend his title. He’ll try to become the first repeat national champion since Phil Mickelson went back to back in 1989 and 1990. Mickelson, you’ll note, went on to add a third title in 1992, joining Ben Crenshaw of Texas as the only 3x winners. Two-time NCAA champions include Houston’s Dick Crawford, Yale’s Dexter Cummings, Princeton’s George Dunlap, Tulane’s Fred Lamprecht, and USC’s Scott Simpson.

-I think it a bit surprising only six non-Americans have won the individual national championship. The first to do so was Australia’s James McLean (Minnesota) in 1998. Since then, England’s Luke Donald (Northwestern, 1999), Spain’s Alejandro Canizares (Arizona State, 2003), Canada’s James Lepp (Washington, 2005) and Matt Hill (NC State, 2009); and Belgium’s Thomas Pieters (Illinois, 2012) have won titles.

-Other sports get a lot of attention when it comes to the split between Power-5 schools and non Power-5 schools, but I’m here to tell you the distinction in golf seems to be of the utmost importance when it comes to winning national championships. Only seven non-P5 programs have captured a team national championship since 1950–Houston (16 of them (!!!!) but none since 1985), North Texas (1950-1952), Augusta (2010 & 2011), BYU (1981), Pepperdine (1997), SMU (1954), and UNLV (1998). I think it puts into contrast just how unique those Augusta teams were several years back.

-You may not recognize the name Mark Laesch. I admit I didn’t before reading about him. As the founder of Golfstat, Laesch helped grow the reach and accessibility of the college game. If you check in on the scores this week, at the link above, that’s Golfstat. Unfortunately, Mark succumbed to ALS earlier spring. I really enjoyed learning about Mark and reading about his spirit from this GolfWeek article by Beth Ann Nichols.

-If you want to do a bit of digging into the various teams and players competing, the NCAA produces a digital program. It can be found HERE.

About the Author

Perma-case of the yips inside 5 feet. Completely lose my swing at least once a year. No concept of what a good leave is. Harbor delusions of golf grandeur.

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