photo courtesy Pepperdine Athletics
For Pepperdine, the wait was well worth it.
After spending the past year thinking about what might have been, the Waves claimed the 2021 NCAA Division I Men’s Golf Championship on Wednesday, defeating top-ranked Oklahoma, 3 and 2 at Grayhawk Golf Club in Scottsdale, Ariz.
The third-seeded Waves rode wins by junior Joe Highsmith, Walker Cup team member William Mouw and fifth-year senior Clay Feagler to earn its second national title in school history and first since 1997, when Jason Gore led Pepperdine to the crown at Conway Farms Golf Course outside of Chicago. Though 24 years have passed since the Waves last hoisted the national championship trophy, it was this past year that must have felt like an eternity to head coach Michael Beard’s team.
Last year’s Pepperdine team was ranked No. 1 ranking in the nation for the entire spring and with a deep and talented roster led by three-time All-American and Haskins Award winner Sahith Theegala and first-team All-American William Mouw, the Waves were odds-on-favorites to win the 2020 National Championship. However, when the pandemic pulled the rug out from underneath the Waves’ title hopes, Pepperdine was left with a feeling of emptiness which was only tempered by the larger world events unfolding around them.
Despite losing Theegala to graduation, the Waves wasted no time in reminding the college golf world they still had plenty of firepower when they won the prestigious East Lake Cup in October, dominating Oklahoma, 4 and 1 in the championship match. It wasn’t too far of a stretch to think the two teams would square off again at Grayhawk with larger stakes on the table.
Neither school’s path to the championship match was exactly smooth, however. The top-ranked Sooners needed a lights out round on the final day of the Albuquerque Regional just to make it to Grayhawk, while the Waves had their backs to the wall at the Cle Elum Regional in Washington and were on the wrong side of the cutline entering the final round of stroke play, but shot a 9-under 271 to jump from ninth place to third.
Making their first-ever appearance in the championship match play portion of the tournament, the Waves defeated Florida State and Oklahoma State to earn a spot in national title match against the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed, Oklahoma, dispatched of fifth-seed Illinois and top-seed Arizona State to set up a title bout between the two heavyweights that was a year in the making.
The Waves’ strong play on the back nine and a dominating performance by Highsmith proved too much for the Sooners, who were searching for their third national championship.
Just moments after fifth-year senior Jonathan Brightwell put the first points on the board for the Sooners with thrilling, come-from-behind, 1-up victory over Pepperdine sophomore Dylan Menante, Highsmith evened the match with a convincing 4 and 3 victory over first-team All-American Garett Reband. A tasty anchor match between Walker Cup teammates Mouw and Oklahoma’s Quade Cummins was a one-sided affair, as the Pepperdine sophomore jumped out of the gates quickly and never looked back, closing out the match on the 15th hole to give the Waves a 2-1 lead.
With Pepperdine needing a win from either Feagler or Joey Vrzich to win the national title, it was the veteran Feagler, a fifth-year senior who has played more rounds than any other player in school history, who delivered the decisive point with a 1-up victory over Sooner freshman and Phoenix-native Ben Lorenz in a wildly entertaining match. The two-time West Coast Conference individual champion found himself 2 down after 11 holes, but won the next three to take a 1-up lead heading into the difficult par-3 15th.
Lorenz squared the match with a par but Feagler quickly regained the lead with a birdie on the 16th. The two players halved the par-4 17th and both faced long birdie putts on the closing hole. After Lorenz’s birdie try from the back on the green came up short, Feagler nestled his 35-foot birdie try close enough that Lorenz conceded the match, securing the national championship for the Waves.
“We didn’t have a chance to see it through last year but these guys came back even better with more fire, motivation and determination,” said Beard, whose father Frank won was an 11-time winner on the PGA Tour.
“Everyone said our year was last year,” said Feagler. “Coach (Michael Beard) said at the beginning of the year, ‘A lot of people don’t think you can do it this year.’ That gave us a little bit of a chip on our shoulder and motivation. Look at us now, national champions. It’s kind of crazy.”
Oklahoma’s Logan McAllister used his second ace in three days en route to a 1-up victory over Vrzich, who was last seen sprinting up the 18th fairway to join his teammates in the greenside celebration.
“I think we did as much as we could do,” said Oklahoma head coach Ryan Hybl. “You to give a lot of the credit to Pepperdine. Those guys are phenomenal. We knew that going into it if we didn’t play our best golf we were probably going to get beat. We weren’t as clean enough in some areas and didn’t make enough putts.”
For Beard, who played at Pepperdine from 1998-2002, guiding his alma mater to a national championship fulfilled a vision and dream few thought were possible when he took over the program nine years ago.
"It all started when I played at Pepperdine, I got to play there for four years and I always felt like we could be the best team in the country,” said Beard. “To be able to come back as coach, I still felt that way. Everyone that has worked with us and every player that we've had come through believes in that as well. I'm just so proud of these guys. Our program, our university, alumni, all you guys here, it's unbelievable. It felt like we just didn't get to see it through last year and these guys came back better. It really wasn't me, they just came back with more fire and more determination and motivation. These guys are so good, we don't have to do much to motivate them."
Match-by Match Results
Pepperdine 3, Oklahoma 2
No. 1 -- Johnathan Brightwell (OU) d. Dylan Menante (PEP), 1-up
No. 2 -- Joe Highsmith (PEP) d. Garett Reband (OU), 4 and 3
No. 3 -- Clay Feagler (PEP) d. Ben Lorenz (OU), 1-up
No. 4 -- Logan McAllister (OU) d. Joey Vrzich (PEP), 1-up
No. 5 -- William Mouw (PEP) d. Quade Cummins (OU), 4 and 3