By Eric Soderstrom
TOLEDO, Ohio – Georgia’s Brian Harman fist-pumped, screamed and jumped into the arms of his stunned and screaming teammates. Oklahoma State’s Rickie Fowler struggled to hold back tears, but so did Georgia coach Chris Haack. Fans, family and friends were cheering, catching their breaths, crying.
“That’s what I live for,” said Harman.
The NCAA golf committee added match play to its championship to hopefully stir excitment and emotion; what it got out of Georgia vs. Oklahoma State – Round 1, Match 1, 7 o’clock Friday morning start – may never be duplicated.
“I literally didn’t know whether to puke or cry after Brian made that putt,” Haack said, just moments after watching Harman roll in a 6-footer for a third consecutive birdie that gave second-ranked Georgia a 3-2 victory over the top-ranked and top-seeded Cowboys.
“I think if my heart can take this, I think doctors can keep me off the treadmill for a while.”
All factors considered, it was that good:
• This was No. 1 (Oklahoma State) vs. No. 2 (Georgia), LeBron vs. Kobe, the championship match in many people’s minds, no matter the timing. “Even though it was the first round, it felt like it was the last one,” said Georgia senior Adam Mitchell.
“In our minds, yeah, this is the one that meant something to us,” said Haack. “Obviously we want to keep it going, but in our minds we were going to have to play them at some point we just didn’t want to do it in the first match. We sure would have liked to have done it tomorrow (in the finals) – but regardless, I’m glad with the outcome.”
• Oklahoma State cruised through stroke-play; Georgia barely made it. The Cowboys, boosted in part by the late-season resurgence of highly-touted freshman Peter Uihlein, were the only team to play the first three days under par. OSU finished 20 shots better than the Bulldogs, who advanced into the eight-team match-play bracket on the number in a tie for seventh.
“I never would have expected this to happen, with how well we were playing,” said Uihlein, who beat Harris English, 4 and 3.
• Luck wasn’t on Georgia’s side. During the second round of stroke-play, sophomore Hudson Swafford signed for a stroke higher than he actually scored. Had Swafford signed correctly, the Bulldogs would have played Arizona State in Round 1.
During his match Friday against OSU’s Kevin Tway, Adam Mitchell was penalized two holes for having too many clubs in the bag.
“It’s kind of like, ‘Gosh, what else can we do wrong?’ ” said Haack.
• For Georgia, it was a comeback victory. When the matches made the turn, Oklahoma State had a 3-1-1 advantage – and the match in hand, it seemed. Fowler sticking his approach to 4 feet on No. 9 for birdie and a 1-up lead only seemed expected.
But then OSU’s Trent Leon lost Nos. 10-12 to Russell Henley and never recovered, eventually knotting the match at 2-2; Fowler missed birdie putts of less than 10 feet on Nos. 10 and 11 that kept Harman and the match alive for Georgia.
“Rickie played great, and I just hung around,” Harman said.
• For Harman, it was defining. After one of the best junior golf careers on record, which included an appearance in the Walker Cup, Harman came to Georgia with the highest of expectations. He never met them, whether or not that was even possible, and certainly had his share of struggles. But this spring, things started to come together.
“In his mind he’s had some disappointing years and here it seemed like this spring he’s kind of turned it on and started playing like his old self,” said Haack.
Harman came to the NCAA Championship as Georgia’s top-ranked player, which is why he drew Fowler, a college superstar if there is even such a category; he battled all day, never letting the deficit get worse than 1 down.
On No. 15, Harman rolled in a short par putt to halve the hole, then walked to other side of the green to retrieve the flagstick. As he jammed it into the hole, he seemed to be making a statement.
“Those last three holes, I dont know, something just got into me,” Harman said. “I said, I’m ready to win this match now.”
What followed was perhaps one of the best clutch performances in tournament history. Harman made birdie putts of 8, 12 and 8 feet on Nos. 16-18, his final birdie coming after a great approach from the left rough. Fowler’s 12-footer for birdie on 18 just didn’t have “enough speed,” and OSU’s run was suddenly over.
In the crowd, U.S. Walker Cup team captain Buddy Marruci watched as Harman, who will wait to turn professional in hopes of making the team again four years later, celebrated with his teammates.
“He is one fiery competitor, and, man, I can’t say enough about him,” said Haack.
“You have to take your hat off to Brian Harman,” said Oklahoma State coach Mike McGraw. “That was unbelievable the way he finished and something I’m sure they’ll remember for a long, long time.
“This was great for college golf today.”
• As disappointed as Fowler was, he knew exactly what had transpired. Ten minutes after Harman’s final putt dropped, Fowler walked out of the locker room on his way to talk to the media, wiping away tears.
“Probably the most fun I’ve had in college golf,” he said, cracks consistently in his voice. “That head-to-head aspect, coming down the stretch having to hit shots. Having your whole team out there, both your coaches, family, friends from both sides, just a big following...”
“Probably the most fun I’ve had.
On 18, the gallery surrounding the tee box was three people deep. “I’ve never struggled to watch a shot in college golf before,” one reporter remarked.
Everyone knew what was at stake.
“You knew what the outcome was going to be, you didn’t have to go to the scoreboard to see what it was going to be,” said McGraw. “The (match play) format is unbelievable, and those coaches who say this isn’t the right format need to be here on a day like today.”
Just minutes after his team’s victory, Haack stood near the 18th green not exactly knowing what to do with himself. The emotion was just too overwhelming.
“As great as I’m feeling right now,” he said, words getting lost as a lump formed in his throat, “because we’re friends (with Oklahoma State), and I know they’re hurting.”
His eyes began to water, and he stopped talking. Then he smiled.
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