My college golf viewing experience is very different now. I’m not just outside the ropes, I’m outside the zip code, so college golf on TV is must-watch. For a few days in May, I get to feel like I’m still on the circuit. And from where I’m sitting (comfortably on my couch), television has created a dream scenario for the sport. Of course, a match-play final had to be adopted to get it, but in hindsight, that adoption looks brilliant.
In match play, the potential for drama is incredible -- that much was apparent in its debut year in women’s golf, when Mariah Stackhouse went charging into extra holes to earn Stanford the title. More heroic hole-outs and underdog stories followed, but I’m not telling you anything you don’t know. The average golfer identifies better with match play (it’s just more exciting), which makes sense because golf has always been a game of match play with stroke play being a fairly “modern” adaptation (this bit of insight I learned from “The Principles Behind The Rules of Golf,” highly recommended reading for hopeful USGA Rules officials).
I generally commandeer the TV in our house during major championships, the Ryder Cup and NCAA finals. I like to listen to the commentary from my fiance, a casual golfer but a general sports fan. He gets the added thrill of head-to-head versus head-to-field. The Twitter reaction to the four collective days of televised golf from Rich Harvest Farms in Sugar Grove, Ill., this year’s NCAA site, also seems a good barometer for the general reception of the format. People outside the college-golf bubble were taking notice...and they were impressed.
Three years into women’s match play (and nine years into men’s), doesn’t it seem like that match play has brought exactly what was promised? In the summer of 2012, three years before the change in format, I polled the head coaches of all 255 women’s programs in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings. Of those who responded (203 coaches), only 23 percent said they wanted to change to match play. (That means 77 percent were opposed to this setup!) I wonder what that percentage would be now, five years later. I can’t imagine the top programs are keen on the change -- a stroke-play champion hasn’t won match play yet, and that goes for the women’s and men’s championships. And match play is by no means perfect (my impression: wow, the NCAA is trying to pack a lot of golf into six days). Progress usually comes at a price, but I still think the initial proponents of this format change are looking awfully smart right about now.
What I like most is how match play changes the conversations around national-championship week. Really, the most important thing I learned in my first year covering women’s college golf was that it wasn’t anyone’s game. There were only a handful of teams that could realistically play well enough for 72 holes to walk away with the trophy, and championship records reflected that. Duke, Arizona State, USC and UCLA were always in that conversation. On various years, maybe one team outside of those. Interestingly, two of my first three years covering the finals ended with first-time champions -- Purdue in 2010 and Alabama in 2012. (Then again, USC literally strolled away from the field in 2013 by a 21-shot margin. Snooze.) Match play, however, created a series of checkpoints to talk about. All of a sudden, nothing is guaranteed.
Postseason contenders, and maybe even champions, are still identified way in advance, but it’s in a different way. This was my great epiphany watching the finals this year, and then I traced it back three years. Stanford was my top-ranked preseason team in 2015 (it raised a couple eyebrows, considering they weren’t really a powerhouse then) and actually underperformed until winning the national title. I remember Washington reaching the top of the rankings (and experiencing all the attention that goes with that) for the first time ever in the fall of 2012, only to miss the national championship that year. The Huskies, of course, won dramatically in 2016.
I actually wrote from the 2014 Annika Intercollegiate that Northwestern, this year’s NCAA runner-up, could be “that” team that does well in match play (I thought they were impressive in foul weather, and what foreshadowing that was for Rich Harvest Farms). That same fall, Kent State head coach Greg Robertson ushered in a new level of competition that began with a top-30 ranking, some tournament titles and finally, last month’s quarterfinal run. (I spend less time studying and recalling these patterns in men’s golf, but how about the long-coming Oklahoma championship led by Brad Dalke, a kid whose die-hard Sooner commitment we’ve all been talking about for nearly 10 years?) This all raises the big question, what did this season reveal about future championships?