By Ryan Lavner, Golfweek
Speak up if you picked Augusta State to win the last two NCAA Championships. . . . We thought so, Miss Cleo. Nobody did. Those Jaguars, for whatever reason, had a certain aptitude for the vagaries of match play, while Oklahoma State, which finished as the No. 1 team in Golfweek’s rankings from 2008-11, went 0-for-3 on The Big Stage.
Augusta State – tiny Augusta State – became the first team in 26 years to win back-to-back national titles. To become part of NCAA history, the Jags didn’t need tradition. They didn’t need a private jet. No, they just needed skill, pluck and maybe some divine intervention. They sell such winning formulas at your local Walgreens.
Even though the two-time defending champs won’t be at next week’s NCAA Championship, this, too, has been a truly incredible year in college golf. So many great teams. So many great players. So many intriguing storylines, many of which focus on top-ranked Texas, or red-hot Alabama, or the contingent of Pac-12 powerhouses.
But come on, has Augusta State taught us nothing? You can’t predict what’s going to happen at NCAAs! Which, naturally, is why I’ve made 10 predictions. More specifically, I’ve listed 10 scenarios that could happen next week at Riviera, but then again, probably won’t.
So, It wouldn’t surprise me if . . .
1.) Texas’ Jordan Spieth and Alabama’s Justin Thomas, Golfweek’s Nos. 1 and 2-ranked players, respectively, went spike-to-spike Thursday for the NCAA individual title, which would influence the Freshman Player of the Year race, which would influence the National Player of the Year race ... which would be a compelling subplot to the national championship, no?
2.) North Florida makes match play, then reaches the semis. OK, so the Ospreys are a little dinged-up, with Kevin Aylwin (wrist) and Kevin Phelan (turf toe) each nursing injuries. But Sean Dale is a bona-fide stud, and the team is feisty enough to topple some of the bigger schools.
3.) Virginia makes a similar run as UNF. The Cavs may not have the firepower to beat teams like Texas, ’Bama or Washington in the stroke-play portion, but look out in match play – Ben Kohles and Co. have the talent to hang around for a while.
4.) The NCAA Championship eventually turns into the L.A. Open, with USC and UCLA slugging it out in the final match. Yes, they have a huge advantage after having practiced and played at The Riv on numerous occasions. But they’re also pretty darn good, which tends to help significantly in these kinds of events.
5.) California winds up being the best team in the Golden State – and, perhaps, the entire NCAA Championship field. Six wins this season. A Pac-12 title. Its first regional victory. The Golden Bears have to be considered one of the favorites next week.
6.) Chattanooga’s Stephan Jaeger challenges for the NCAA individual title. Gotta appreciate the kid’s heart: Playing what could have been his final college event, Jaeger shot the best score of his career (13-under 203) to win the Bowling Green regional. Who wouldn’t want to stay in college longer?
7.) East Coast teams really struggle at Riviera. They have to adjust to the time change, the Poa annua and the supercharged atmosphere in short time. Trying to win on a course like Riviera with only one practice round? Not an envious position.
8.) Top-ranked Texas wins the stroke-play portion, maybe even handily, then doesn’t win the important part. This isn’t a knock against the Longhorns; they’ve been terrific all season. It’s just the reality of this format: Sometimes, the best team doesn’t win.
9.) Liberty doesn’t suffer from stage fright. Led by senior Robert Karlsson (a top-25 player!), the Flames looked pretty comfortable in winning the Greensboro regional for their third consecutive team title. Long shots have thrived at NCAAs before, remember . . .
10.) Three or four of the country’s top 10 teams don’t advance to match play. Hey, there’s only eight spots! Texas A&M has played well without Cameron Peck, its second-leading scorer, but you wonder how long the Aggies can survive ... fifth-ranked Auburn needed a late rally just to make nationals ... Stanford hasn’t won since its season-opener in September.
Let’s be serious, though: None of these scenarios will actually happen. The NCAA Championship eventually boils down to match play, where anything goes. Even crazy, improbable things, like Augusta State going back-to-back. I kind of like it that way.