With all the attention on the PGA Tour it is easy to forget that the spring semester of college golf is starting up. The Amer Ari Invitational in Hawaii marked the first big tournament of the spring as 7 top 20 teams competed. National Title favorites Oklahoma State continued their strong play with a 17 stroke victory over Texas Tech. The Cowboys shot -47 as a team and had four players finish T-9 or better. Individually, USC standout Justin Suh birdied four of his last six holes to win the tournament by 1 shot. Before the rest of the season gets going, let’s recap the fall and see what lies ahead this spring.
Keeping Up with the Walker Cuppers
First off, the Walker Cup was everything we hoped it would be and more. Watching the country’s top amateurs play against Great Britain/Ireland’s best at LACC proved to be amazing TV. The Americans routed GB&I in a resounding 19 to 7 victory. Since then, three Americans have turned professional, six have returned to college, and Stew Hagestad has transitioned back to life as a working joe. Cameron Champ and Maverick McNealy turned professional early, and both earned status on the Web.com Tour via Q-school. Will Zalatoris announced after the fall season that he is also turning professional for 2018.
Among the Walker Cuppers still in college, four of them have continued to be extremely dominant. Norman Xiong and reigning NCAA champ Braden Thornberry have each won two events so far this year. Collin Morikawa has been a machine for the Cal Bears, finishing the fall with two top 5s and two top 15s. Despite those standouts, the most impressive performer has been Doug Ghim. He has played four tournaments for Texas, notching a win, a scoring average of 69.17 and no rounds over 72. He also won a high-profile amateur event, the Andeavor Sun Bowl Classic, in November.
Back to Back?
In the last ten years, there have been two back-to-back champions in the NCAA: Augusta State in 2010/2011 and Alabama in 2013/2014. Oklahoma will look to join this group after a decisive victory at Rich Harvest Farms in 2017. They lost their top player, senior Max McGreevy, but have adjusted quite nicely. Brad Dalke has stepped up as the leader of their team, and sophomore Garett Reband has really stepped up to help fill in for McGreevy. He has dropped his scoring average by about four shots from last year. The Sooners only won once this fall, but that should serve as motivation to come out strong in the spring.
A Little Competition is Good for You
It turns out that the SEC has more sports than football. The top 25 in the Sagarin rankings feature eight teams from the SEC, including six in the top ten. Alabama impressed once again with two wins, a playoff loss, and another second place finish. They don’t feature a big name player like we are used to out of a Bama team, but they are extremely solid top to bottom. Vanderbilt played okay in the beginning of the fall and finished strong by winning the East Lake Cup over Illinois. Then there is a surprise success story, Texas A&M. They found the winner’s circle three times without Cameron Champ and seem ready to compete for a title(more on them later). Florida, Auburn, and LSU also had very solid fall seasons and all find themselves in the top 10 of the Sagarin rankings. Somehow, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Braden Thornberry’s Ole Miss squad are also in the mix and started with solid starts to their year.
Still Dominant in Stillwater
Finishing at the top of the fall rankings were the Oklahoma State Cowboys. Due to a snow-out in Denver, they only played three events in the fall. In those three events, they finished with two wins and a third. As mentioned above they also started strong this spring with a dominant showing in Hawaii. Similar to Alabama, OSU doesn’t feature a name that the general golf world is familiar with, but they have a team that seems to show up everytime they step to the tee. Seven players participated in multiple events last fall, and they all averaged under 71.2. Zach Bauchou and Matthew Wolff have led the charge so far, and the rest of the team is not far behind. The Cowboys are used to having dominant teams and this one ranks right up there.
How ‘bout Them Aggies
Winning three team events in a row is impressive. It was even more impressive when Texas A&M did it without their senior leader, Cameron Champ. Scheduling conflicts and an injury prevented him from participating in the Aggies’ first three events, but it would appear that they didn’t need him. Led by Chandler Phillips, A&M reeled off three victories to start the year with Phillips also winning Wisconsin’s event individually. The team’s most impressive victory came at Olympia Fields as they bested a field that included Oklahoma State, Alabama, Illinois and Texas. After the fall season, Champ announced that he was foregoing his last semester and would turn professional. His t-16 at q-school earned him starts in the first 8 Web.com Tour events for the upcoming season.
Searching for the Accelerator
A few teams have underperformed thus far, especially in comparison to the success we normally see from these programs. Players come and go in college golf, so it is not uncommon for teams to struggle when losing top-tier talent. Here are a few teams that are experiencing just that.
The Oregon Ducks have dropped off significantly considering the success they experienced the last two years. Losing their leader, Wyndham Clark, has been tough, and the rest of the team has struggled to live up to the last few seasons of Oregon dominance. In their defense, they are extremely young and many of them are are just getting their webbed feet wet (sorry).
Former Oregon Star Wyndham Clark putting at last year's NCAA Championships
Rico Hoey was a big loss for the USC Trojans, but they have not dropped as far as the Ducks. They started slow this fall but did rally at the end for their first win of the season. They also finished in a very respectable 3rd place at the Amer Ari Invitational. It will be interesting to see if they can build on that momentum. Justin Suh is an absolute stud and has the ability to win every week, as he did last week. He has 9 rounds in the 60s and hasn’t shot above 71 all year.
Two teams that have underperformed but can’t really be considered disappointments are Illinois and Texas. Both teams feature big name players but have struggled to achieve the same level of success that they had last year. For the Illini, the duo of Nick Hardy and Dylan Meyer continue to turn heads as the leaders of their team. The rest of their squad has not played poorly, but they haven’t been amazing either. Putting together four solid scores has been a struggle for Illinois through this point in the season. Even with their average play, they haven’t finished worse than 5th and lost a close match to Vanderbilt in the final of the East Lake Cup. Similarly, the Longhorns are seeing what life without Gavin Hall is like. Doug Ghim and Scottie Scheffler are still around, but Scheffler just hasn’t been the same this year. His scoring average is fine, but his best finish has been a T-23. As described above, Ghim has played extremely well and seems like the anchor of this team. It is hard to bash on a team that is ranked in the top 20 in the country, but I know they would like to be better. They did finish the fall with a 2nd-place finish at Georgia, but the depth of the Longhorns remains uncertain.
Illinois Giovanni Tadiotto at last year's NCAAs
Second Half Headlines
OSU, their demanding schedule and the inevitable debate
I mentioned how good Oklahoma State has been earlier in this piece, and I meant it. They are unbelievably talented and are going to win many tournaments this spring. They don’t have a weak spot on their roster. What they do have is 7 spring events, the Big 12 Championship, an NCAA regional, and almost certainly the NCAA Championship. That will be 10 tournaments in less than four months with trips ranging from Florida to Hawaii. I can’t help but wonder if all that travel will eventually take its toll. Balancing school and sport is something all student athletes have to figure out, but I do not envy the task that lies ahead of them.
The good news for the Cowboys is that if they make it to the NCAA Championship, they’ll be playing on their home turf. The tournament is being held at Karsten Creek this year, less than 15 minutes from OSU’s campus. This isn’t the first time that the host team is extremely talented. Just two years ago, Oregon won the NCAA title on their home golf course of Eugene Country Club. My guess is that if Oklahoma State is able to win this year, there will be some calls for neutral championship sites. Local knowledge is invaluable in golf, and hosting the national title is a huge advantage. In his NCAA wrap up from last year, Andy Johnson brought up this idea:
“My solution would require a little collaboration between the NCAA and the PGA Tour, but I believe it’s one that would be mutually beneficial: Have the championships hosted at TPC Courses across the country. This gives the NCAA “neutral” sites across the country that are built to host championship golf, while the PGA Tour benefits by having the future stars of the game exposed to the public at an early age on their courses, adding valuable marketing appeal to players when they reach the Tour level”
I really like the idea and I don’t think it would be that hard to coordinate. It almost makes too much sense. Anyway, don’t be surprised if this conversation arises when the tournament starts in May. It should be a very competitive affair considering the amount of talent in the NCAA this year.
Getting his Hanse on Southern Hills
Come late April, teams will head to Tulsa and Southern Hills for the Big 12 Championship. This tournament will mark the last notable event before Gil Hanse and his team come in for a $19 million renovation. The goal is to take the course back to the way Perry Maxwell designed it, including tree removal and bunker restorations. All bunkers on the course will be restored to a more natural look, moving away from the ice cream scoop style (Looking at you Augusta National). Some bunkers will also be moved to be more strategically important to the course. This includes removing bunkers from the outside of doglegs, an architectural nightmare. Some trees will be removed on certain holes to increase options off the tee and widen the course. Hanse is also lengthening the course by nearly 300 yards and moving cart paths to make them unobstructive. All in all, this is everything that a restoration should be. It will bring the course back to the way the architect originally wanted it to play, while keeping the modern game in mind. I can’t wait to see how it turns out when Hanse & Co. are done in the summer of 2019.
Will the Real Big 10 Please Stand Up
I’ll admit, this section is a bit biased on my end. The Big 10 is not very good as a whole, but Illinois is still lurking. I mentioned that they underperformed in the first half, but I think Mike Small will have this team ready to turn the corner. They start the spring with the Big 10 match play tournament, and a win there could help them gain some confidence. I don’t see any other team in the conference making much of a run this year, and it would be good to see the Illini step it up. Penn State did notch two wins in the fall, but they were against much weaker fields than others are playing. The Big 10 championship is at Baltimore Country Club again this year, a relatively unknown gem on the east coast. I expect Illinois to run away with it, but other teams will be motivated to do well. Winning the Big 10, or at least doing very well at the tournament, would help to guarantee a spot in an NCAA regional. Hopefully one or two other teams in the conference can step it up this spring. The national championship is in danger of being a strictly south and west coast affair.
The House that Vanderbilt
The SEC is good, really good. Alabama will continue to be a force to be reckoned with, and there are a litany of other really good teams. Auburn, LSU, Texas A&M, Georgia, Florida…the list goes on and on. Still, my pick to win the SEC this year is Vanderbilt. Will Gordon and Theo Humphrey are leading the charge, and I expect them to win a couple times this spring. Gordon and Humphrey already started strong this spring with great showings at the Jones Cup in January. Vanderbilt’s schedule is fairly conservative but will still serve as good competition as they prepare to make a run at the national title. Coach Scott Limbaugh has done a good job separating out their travel to make sure they are well prepared for each tournament. They don’t play two weeks in a row for the entire semester, a good way to ensure plenty of rest and practice for each week. The Commodores are set up to win their second straight SEC title and make a run at the NCAA Championship.
Who Else to Watch
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Georgia Tech at all in this preview. The Yellow Jackets won twice in the fall and are setting their sights on a lot more this spring. Their team is very solid all around and will most certainly make a case for an NCAA title. They already proved they can beat the best as they beat Alabama in a playoff back in September. Their top five consistently features four underclassmen, including Luke Schniederjans, the younger brother of Ollie.
Texas is going to get better; I would bet the farm on it. Doug Ghim is the real deal and has the ability to lead this team to great things. Scottie Scheffler also started the spring on a much better note with a T-13 finish in Hawaii. They have a couple tough events to help them prepare for the postseason, so I will be paying close attention to them early this spring.
Similarly, Clemson has nowhere to go but up. Walker Cupper Doc Redman has not played as well since his thrilling U.S. Amateur victory over Ghim. It is tough to blame him as the last year was clearly the biggest of his golfing life. Expect him to make a resurgence and lead Clemson back into the national spotlight. A Clemson/Ga Tech showdown in the ACC would be a very entertaining way to start the postseason.
A few mid-majors could make some moves this spring as well. Kent State and Miami (OH) are leading the charge in the MAC after very solid falls. Kent State has traditionally been a very good program and looks to make the NCAA Championship for the second straight year. Other teams to keep an eye on include UCF, BYU, and UNLV. UCF made a strong run into the NCAA championship last year but ultimately missed the match-play portion. I expect that let down to motivate them this spring.
A Final Plea
Go out and watch some golf. Top-tier college golf produces many tour pros, and the events are mainly free to watch. They are played at big boy golf courses and will feature incredible talent. I would urge everyone to get out to any tournament that is near them and see the country’s best young talent up-close.