OWINGS MILLS, MD (June 4, 2005) -- With Coach Chris Haack rubbing the lucky coin in his pocket, the Georgia men's golf team cashed in on Saturday at the NCAA Championships.
The Bulldogs went wire-to-wire as the tournament leader at Caves Valley Golf Club, finishing with an 11-shot advantage over instate rival Georgia Tech. Georgia fired an even-par 280 in the final round to wind up at 15-over 1,135.
Afterward, Haack was chosen as the recipient of the Golf Coaches Assocation of America's Dave Williams Award as the National Coach of the Year.
"I could not be prouder of this group of guys," said Haack, who carried a coin given to him by his children, Katie and Charlie, that had the inscription, "Dad, I Love You."
"I knew that we had the talent, the confidence and the demeanor to challenge for the championship this year," Haack continued. "It's been a good year, but we only had two wins coming in. I knew if they all put it together, it would be special. They just happened to do it this week when it meant the most."
The national championship is the second in Georgia history. The 1999 Bulldogs claimed the national title in Minnesota. It is also the school's 14th national championship since 1999 and the 24th overall. Earlier this year, gymnastics and women's swimming and diving claimed titles.
"It's awesome to go out like this," said David Denham, the only senior in the Bulldogs' lineup. "You live for moments like this. Every team strives to win the national championship, but not too many of them do it."
"This is what you play for," junior Richard Scott said. "This is what this team was put together for. It's great to go out and win other tournaments, but this is the one we all play for."
"This is the biggest one," junior and team captain Kevin Kisner said. "This is what you set your goals for. This is why we all came to Georgia. We've got too solid of a team not to win tournaments. When we all play well, it's hard for us to lose."
The Bulldogs entered the final round with a 9-shot lead over the Yellow Jackets, and they knew it would hard to give that kind of lead away. Still, when sophomore Brendon Todd's putt rolled in on No. 18, the players and coaches were all at once relieved and ecstatic.
"This is the ultimate feeling," sophomore Chris Kirk said. "It's awesome. It's a great group of guys, and I have loved playing with them the last two years."
"It feels great," Todd said. "It's probably the biggest accomplishment any of us have in golf. It's just incredible to win the national championship. And I'm excited about the next couple of years. I think we might have some more in us."
All five Bulldogs fired an even-par 70 on Saturday. Said Haack, "That's just the way we drew it up in the playbook."
With the drop of a two-foot putt during a third playoff hole, Washington junior James Lepp won the NCAA Division I Men's Golf Championship to cap a remarkable final round effort. Lepp, a native of Abbotsford, B.C., rallied from a six-shot deficit during the final day of play by shooting a course record 7-under 63 at the Caves Valley Golf Club in Owings Mill, Md. to force the playoff with Pepperdine's Michael Putnam, a Tacoma native.
Led by Lepp's play, Washington shot 4-under 276 Saturday to place third, the best finish in the program's history. The Huskies completed the 72-hole tournament at 33-over 1153. Georgia ran away with its second team title, shooting 1135 to finish 11 strokes ahead of Georgia Tech. The Bulldogs, who led from wire-to-wire, finished at 1135 while the Yellowjackets were seven strokes better than Washington at 1146. BYU was fourth at 1154.
Washington's finish marked the second consecutive year the Huskies have placed in the top-10. Last year's team was sixth, but Lepp did not play while sitting out the season after transferring from Illinois. As a freshman, he was 13th at the NCAAs for the Illini.
After struggling to a 76 during Friday's rain-soaked third round, Lepp entered Saturday tied for eighth with four other players at 3-over 213. He had shot 70 and 67 during the first two days of play. Putnam held a one-shot lead over Georgia Tech's Roberto Castro, who went on to finish third behind the two Northwest golfers.
"It hasn't been a very good year for me until now," said Lepp, who became the first Canadian to win the title. "I haven't had much confidence, but this week, especially today, it all came together. What a great way to end the year.
"It was one of those rounds where you get everything out of it," said Lepp of his best collegiate score. "Those rounds are very rare."
"It was an unbelievable effort and a great honor for James," said Husky coach Matt Thurmond. "It has to be one of the best rounds in the history of the championship. Playing on a course like this, as long as it played all week, to play the way he did is just amazing. He made some great up and downs and converted when he had the chance for a birdie putt."
Lepp joins a distinctive list of Pac-10 players who have won the NCAA title that includes Arizona State's Phil Mickelson (1989, 1990, 1992), USC's Scott Simpson (1976, 1977) and Stanford's Tiger Woods (1996).
Starting on the back nine, Lepp pared his first three holes before recording birdies on the par-5 13th hole and the short par-4 14th hole. A bogie on the lengthy 480-yard 17th hole dropped him back to one-under. He then birdied 18, a hole where he would eventually win the playoff, to turn at 3-under.
Lepp ripped off birdies on the first three holes on the front side of the course to push himself to five-under. He used a deft wedge shot on the par-5 seventh hole to make a four-foot birdie putt and then he one-putted the par-3 eighth hole to improve to seven-under.
After his drive drifted into the first cut on the par-4, 435-yard ninth hole, he overshot the green with his approach shot and then found his ball plugged in the rough. He executed a beautiful soft wedge to within several feet of the cup and saved par.
"That," said Lepp, "is a shot I will always remember."
Putnam bogied the 16th hole as Lepp was finishing his round to fall back into a tie at 4-under. Putnam's approach shot on the 18th hole spun back below the green and he was forced to make a long 12-footer to make par and force the playoff. Ironically, he would face nearly the same putt on the third playoff hole.
Playing No. 18 as the first playoff hole, Lepp found himself in trouble when his fairway iron landed in a bunker just right of the green's pin. A soft wedge shot and 10-foot put kept him alive as Putnam two-putted from 30 feet.
Moving to the No. 9 hole, both players hit the green in regulation and two-putted to force the deciding third playoff hole.
Lepp outdrove Putnam on their second trip to No. 18, but then saw his approach shot land 40 feet from the pin on the lower left side of the green. Putnam's fairway shot was also left, but five feet inside of Lepp. Putting first, Lepp lagged his putt just two feet from the pin. Putnam's first putt rolled almost six feet past the cup and close to the spot where he ended regulation with his length par effort. This time Putnam's put missed by two inches and the cool-handed Lepp made his par to claim the title.
"After the second playoff hole I told him, 'Come on, you have to be aggressive. You've given him his two opportunities and he didn't make a birdie. Now it's your chance,'" Thurmond said. "He was fortunate. Mike is a tremendous player and I did not expect him to three-putt that."
Ironically, in Lepp's only other first-place finish during the season, he tied with Putnam for top honors at Oregon's Duck Invitational. There was no playoff to decide the medalist of that tournament.
In addition to winning the national title, Lepp was honored by the Golf Coaches Association of America as a first-team All-American and as the recipient of the Arnold Palmer Award as the national collegiate champion. Lepp's win also earned him a spot in a sectional qualifying round for the U.S. Open. He had previously failed to advance at a local qualifying round.
Lepp's dramatic victory was just part of the Huskies' success story on Saturday. UW's third-place finish bettered the fourth-place showing in 1999 as the best team effort at the NCAA Championships.
Freshman Zach Bixler (Richland) played an important role in UW's last-day run. He shot 1-under 69 during the final 18 holes, his best score of the tournament. Sophomores Erik Olson (Renton) and Alex Prugh (Spokane) both contributed 72s to round out UW's scoring. Joe Panzeri (Boise) was the Huskies' non-counter with a 74.
Olson, the Pac-10 Champion, finished the tournament in 27th place at 10-over 290. Panzeri was 51st overall at 297 while Bixler was 54th at 298. Prugh finished at 58th with a 299.
"It shows how much heart these guys have," Olson said. "For James to come out here and shoot 63. He was not scared to back down on a really hard golf course during the final round of nationals. No one backed down. Everyone stepped up and did their thing just like we did all postseason. We are so closely knit that I don't think any of us will let each other down. We knew what we had to do."
The tournament capped a postseason run that saw the Huskies win their first Pac-10 title since 1988 and a third-place showing at the NCAA West Regional. Washington entered the NCAAs ranked 19th in the coaches poll and 24th in the Golfweek standings.
"We have had great players," said Thurmond, who was earlier named the Pac-10 Conference Coach of the Year. "One of the unique things about our guys is they really, really care a lot and this means a lot to them."
Under the guidance of Thurmond, the Huskies have placed 11th, 11th, sixth and third in the last four NCAA Championships.
The Huskies return all five players who participated at this year's NCAA Championships. Next year's tournament is scheduled to be played in Sunriver, Ore. The Washington lineup included a junior, two sophomores and two freshmen. The team has a distinctive Northwest flavor. Three players hail from the state of Washington, one from Idaho and one from British Columbia.
1. Georgia 274-284-297-280-1135
2. Georgia Tech 288-281-295-282-1146
3. Washington 289-285-303-276-1153
4. BYU 285-290-304-275-1154
5. New Mexico 289-300-291-278-1158
6. USC 290-282-303-284-1159
7. Kentucky 291-292-294-284-1161
8. UNLV 284-290-302-286-1162
8. Duke 288-286-303-285-1162
10. Augusta State 286-289-302-287-1164
11. Arizona State 291-285-301-293-1170
11. Tennessee 279-288-313-290-1170
13. Georgia State 287-287-305-294-1173
13. Georgia Southern 286-298-299-290-1173
15. Oklahoma State 292-289-301-296-1178
1. James Lepp, Washington* 70-67-76-63-276
1. Michael Putnam, Pepperdine 67-67-73-69-276
3. Roberto Castro, Georgia Tech 69-68-71-71-279
4. Major Manning, Augusta State 65-70-73-73-281
5. Rob Grube, Stanford 71-71-72-68-282
5. Ryan Moore, UNLV 72-73-71-66-282
7. Oscar Alvarez, BYU 67-71-75-70-283
7. John Holmes, Kentucky 70-72-69-72-283
7. Ross McGowan, Tennessee 67-71-75-70-283
7. Aron Price, Georgia Southern 66-73-72-72-283
7. Brendon Todd, Georgia 68-70-75-70-283
7. Taylor Wood, USC 72-68-72-71-283
13. Chris Kirk, Georgia 69-71-75-70-285
13. Kevin Kisner, Georgia 65-74-76-70-285
13. Joshua Wooding, USC 71-67-73-73-285
* Won three-hole play off and individual championship