They faced off at the draw; they next face off on the course (OkSt photo)
By Sean Martin
STILLWATER, OK (May 29, 2018) – Alabama has the match-play history. Oklahoma State, the nation’s No. 1 team, will have the home-course advantage.
In the 10 years of match play at the NCAA Championship, no teams have qualified for the final match more often than Wednesday’s two opponents. This is Alabama’s fourth finals appearance. Oklahoma State is playing for the NCAA title for the third time.
There’s one big difference.
Alabama won back-to-back NCAA titles in 2013 and 2014. Oklahoma State is 0-2 in the NCAA title match and also winless when hosting the national championship at Karsten Creek, the opulent Tom Fazio design that was built not for Oklahoma State students and faculty, but specifically for the Cowboys’ storied golf programs.
Oklahoma State’s advantage extends beyond an intricate knowledge of Karsten Creek’s putting surfaces.
The Cowboys’ athletic program is the only game in town in tiny Stillwater, Oklahoma, and the golf team is as much a part of the school’s athletic culture as football or basketball. How many universities have a former golf coach as their athletic director? That’s the case at Oklahoma State, where Mike Holder is head of the athletics department.
Thousands of Oklahoma State’s passionate fans are expected to crowd the fairways of Karsten Creek, many of them clad in the bright orange that was the school’s trademark well before Rickie Fowler
made it fashionable.
“I’d like them to make a lot of noise,” said Oklahoma State head coach Alan Bratton. “It’s going to be a really fun environment. What a dream scenario, to get to play in front of that crowd.”
Wednesday’s scene will be college golf’s version of playing Duke at Cameron Indoor or Oregon at Autzen Stadium. But the Cowboys also will have the pressure that comes from high expectations.
They were this season’s dominant team. They won nine times, including a seven-event winning streak, and are the country’s consensus No. 1 team. The host team won this week’s stroke-play competition by eight strokes.
The Cowboys are looking to end a title drought that is too long for Holder’s high standards. They won the last of their 10 NCAA titles in 2006.
In two previous NCAA Championships at Karsten Creek, Oklahoma State lost to Clemson by two strokes in 2003 NCAA Championship and fell to Augusta State in the 2011 semifinals.
Oklahoma State’s Zach Bauchou
scoffed at the idea that the Cowboys would feel any pressure, though.
“I don’t think there’s any pressure when you’re good as we are throughout the lineup,” he said.
Josh Gregory, the coach of that Augusta State team, compared facing the Cowboys at Karsten Creek to playing a Ryder Cup on hostile soil.
“Your bad shots get claps. Your good shots get booed. It’s absolutely awesome,” Gregory said. “It’s the way sports really are. You have 5,000 people dressed in orange. You have to enjoy it and play fearless. All the pressure in the world is on them. None of it is on you.”
Alabama beat Oklahoma State in the 2014 title match. Cowboy fans bussed into Hutchison, Kansas, to watch Alabama and Oklahoma State play the final match at Prairie Dunes. Alabama won on an eagle putt by Trey Mullinax, who now plays on the PGA TOUR. Only the head coaches, Alabama’s Jay Seawell and Oklahoma State’s Bratton, remain from those teams, though.
“They probably had a couple thousand people in Kansas and we had like 100,” Alabama head coach Jay Seawell said. “We realize that tomorrow we're going to hit a lot of good shots and won't hear a single thing except for maybe a mom and a dad, so I know that's coming, and there's nothing wrong with it. That's what makes it great.”
Oklahoma State beat Texas A&M and Auburn on Tuesday. It was the local kid, freshman Austin Eckroat
of Edmond, Oklahoma, who scored the clinching point in both matches. Eckroat has been attending Oklahoma State football games and wearing the golf program’s Swinging Pete logo since he was a kid.
Alabama, which snuck into match play with just a stroke to spare, dominated its semifinal match over Duke, scoring just the second 5-0 victory in the history of the NCAA Championship.
The Alabama teams that qualified for three consecutive title matches (2012-14) were led by future TOUR players like Justin Thomas
, Tom Lovelady
, Trey Mullinax
and Bobby Wyatt
. Thomas, Wyatt, Cory Whitsett
, Robby Shelton
and Gavin Moynihan
all played on Walker Cup teams.
This year’s Alabama squad has just two players in the top 100 of Golfweek’s individual rankings, senior Lee Hodges
(No. 21) and junior Davis Riley
Oklahoma State has three of the country’s top 20 players, and all five are ranked in the top 100. The team is led by two first-team All-Americans, Viktor Hovland
and freshman sensation Matthew Wolff
. Alabama has none.
None of the Crimson Tide’s five players finished in the top 20 in stroke play, nor did any Crimson Tide players break par for 72 holes. The five players combined for just four sub-par rounds and were a combined 40 over par in stroke play.
Three Alabama players – Riley, Davis Shore
and Wilson Furr
– went 2-0 on Tuesday, though. Furr shot two 80s in stroke play, but won his quarterfinal match, 7 and 6.
“We start at zero, and the game plan changes,” Alabama’s Jonathan Hardee
said about match play. “We play one hole at a time, and every hole is basically a round of a boxing match, and you're just trying to win as many rounds as you can.”
Alabama head coach Jay Seawell said that he saw his team come together during the SEC Championship, which also uses a match-play format. His team was down 5-0 to Vanderbilt but came back to beat the Commodores. The Crimson Tide lost in the final to Auburn, the same team that Oklahoma State beat in Tuesday’s semifinals.
“You can have a whole bunch of good players and talent,” Seawell said, “but you've got to trust each other and believe the other guy is doing to do his job when he gets punched in the nose.”
The Crimson Tide will need each other Wednesday, because they’ll be facing the toughest environment in college golf.