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College Golf Has Never Been Better (or Healthier), Which We Saw at Karsten Creek



I can’t say I’d be writing this if OSU had lost to, say, Texas A&M in the quarterfinals of match play on Tuesday morning at Karsten Creek. I think I would, but it would be disingenuous to say that I would for sure. However, OSU went on to win a clean sweep over Alabama in the finals on Wednesday, and despite the fact that it was a total blowout, postseason, match-play golf once again captivated the country.

Part of the reason for that is that match play always feels close until the very end. This is not the case in stroke play events, and even though match play creates more randomness (and thus chaos) and is worse for better teams, it was a necessity to flip the NCAA Championship from stroke play to match play for the good of college golf and its health into the future.

Nobody knows this better than Mike Holder, who is at the very least partially responsible for the changes, which were implemented in 2009.

“I had a lot to do with this match play, and our fans like to blame me for not having two or three more championships,” said OSU athletic director Mike Holder. “Like I would ever do anything to hurt the program … although I knew at the time we moved to match play it wasn’t in the best interest of the top-tier programs, the blue bloods.

“But something needed to happen because nobody turned out for the tournaments to watch other than family members. You couldn’t get it on television, and no one could understand the format. Medal play is complicated … you’re trying to make golf, an individual sport, into a team (sport). I can’t tell you how many times a parent would come up to me and ask the score and I said, ‘I have no clue.’ How could anyone out there tune in and have any concept of what’s going on? You need to simplify and get it down to something people understand.”

Holder has built something that, while possibly detrimental to the powerhouse he also constructed, is an across-the-board success on par with a lot of professional events and possibly even better than some of them.

Ryan Lavner of Golf Channel did a great job dissecting that idea here. He covers college golf on the regular and seemed impressed with both Karsten Creek and the health of college golf.

Holder has bigger dreams than even how far college golf has come, though. He wants to match blows with pro team events. The big ones.

“(Head-to-head competition is) what college athletics is all about,” said Holder. “The Ryder Cup, Walker Cup, Presidents Cup. Those are hugely popular. So why not college golf? We have a lot more going for us than those events because we’re actually a team. Those are put-together one-week-at-a-time teams. That’s not a real team where you live together, dream together, sacrifice together … all the things that go with living with somebody and being around them for 2, 3, 4 and sometimes 5 years. This is a true team.

“You throw in the passion people have for their university and college athletics in general. This thing had the potential to really ratchet it up and have a lot more going for it than those events I just mentioned. I guess we’ll see. That’s a pretty grand statement. People get passionate about their country, but not as much as those kids who went to the class you want to, who went to the sporting events you went to, that did exactly the same things you did 10, 20, 30, 40 years ago.”


(Aside: I could have talked to Holder for two hours on Wednesday night, no lie. Two hours. Talking about the best teams ever, his days as a player and a coach. The futures of the guys on this team. Who has surprised him most over the years. Charles Howell III stories. It would have been my favorite podcast of all time).

Holder understood back in 1998 or 2003 or whenever that college golf needed a makeover, and he had the foresight and objectivity to push it to fruition for the good of the sport. It’s hard to overstate how important this was and how far it has come since the early 2000s.

Before Matthew Wolff sank his putt to end the 2018 college golf season on Wednesday, I asked Zach Robinson, who played on the last OSU title team in 2006, which player clinched their matches. He reminded me that it was just stroke play then, and while I’m sure he wouldn’t trade that ring for much, it’s clear that the excitement surrounding the last two days far usurps a stroke play title that is difficult to understand until it’s over.

Now, this is an annual must-see event, either in person or on TV. I heard from a lot of Cowboys fans who were astonished at just how into the golf they were. Part of that is certainly due to OSU’s success in this year’s event, but a lot of it has to do with the fact that match play is standard deviations more exciting than stroke play when it comes to teams.

Do I need it every week on an individual level? No, I do not. With individuals it actually gets quite boring. But for whatever reason it is the perfect equation for creating the best brand of team golf. That tilted OSU’s way in 2018, unlike the previous two times it won the stroke play portion of the event. It won’t always be that way, and it will ultimately hurt OSU more than it will help it. But I wouldn’t trade it, and nobody remotely associated with the sport ever wants to go back.

Besides, as Holder noted, embracing the pressure of being the best team and having to take on the randomness of match play is part of the fun.

“A lot of pressure on me, and I didn’t have anything to do with it,” said Holder. “I can feel it. I can sense it. It was in the air. If you weren’t nervous, if you didn’t feel something then what’s the point? You should embrace that. That’s what you worked hard for. Used in the right way, it will make you do things that you never dreamed you could do.”

Like winning a national championship 5-0-0 by playing 66 holes in 21 under on your home turf in front of more fans than have probably collectively ever seen you play.

So it’s easy to say it right now — certainly easier than it was in 2009 or 2010 — but match play golf is paramount to the popularity of college golf, and the popularity of college golf creates more and better competition into the future. Which for us as fans makes for the best (and most enjoyable) consumer experience.

Follow Kyle Porter on Twitter @KylePorterCBS

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