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Freshman Eckroat Ends Texas A&M Threat, Pokes Move on at NCAAs in Thrilling Match Play Quarterfinal

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STILLWATER, Okla. — It went well at the beginning for Oklahoma State in the quarterfinals of the NCAA Championship on Tuesday at Karsten Creek. Then it got murky and possibly dark near the end. A 4-0-1 lead quickly flipped into a 1-1-3 tie, and the Pokes were on the ropes on their home course as the No. 2-ranked Texas A&M Aggies tried to upend the best team in the country.

Superstar Matthew Wolff ended his match with Dan Erickson in warp speed with a 4 and 3 win. Then first man out for OSU Viktor Hovland got taken to extra holes, where he ended up winning 1 up on a two-putt par. Kristoffer Ventura came next for the Pokes. He made a clutch birdie on the 18th as Walker Lee missed a short one to match him, and that one went to extras as well.

With two points in the can for OSU, Zach Bauchou struggling in the final match and Ventura and Lee headed off to the 10th hole, the match hinged on freshman Austin Eckroat vs. redshirt sophomore Brandon Smith.

They went to the par-5 18th hole all square before Smith pumped one into the right hay and Eckroat piped his drive down the middle. Smith punched out into the fairway, and Eckroat took his stance from 250 yards away. Zero thoughts of laying. None. His eyes never left the flag.

The true freshman hit one pin high and two-putted for the 1-up win over Smith. It was an unbelievable moment. Ventura and Lee shook hands and called it a day all square, and Bauchau ceded the final hole to his opponent. OSU moved on 3-1-1.

“At the end, that putt on No. 17 and both those putts on No. 18 I was shaking over both of them,” said Eckroat. “I’m still kind of shaking. It’s been a lot of fun. Having these people out here is unbelievable. I feel like this is just as good as a Tour event. It’s pretty crazy.”

The entire last hour was a Tom Fazio-shaped thrill ride around the final three-hole curve at Karsten. OSU had it locked up, and then it teetered, and then it started slipping swiftly, and then Eckroat put a dagger in the thing. The most humorous part of all of it was that, had they played all five matches to their end, OSU theoretically could have won 5-0-0. It would have been the closest 5-0-0 match in the history of college golf.

Now the Pokes move on to face Auburn, which took down OU 3 and 2 and denied us a Bedlam semifinals. On the other side of the bracket Duke and Alabama will face each other.

This is just the fourth time OSU has advanced to the semifinals of match play since the format was introduced in 2009 and the first time since it lost to Alabama in the 2014 finals.

There has been a lot of chatter about how much match play stinks for great teams. This is true. The best format for determining the best team (and thus the most desirable format for OSU) would be 10,000 holes of stroke play. OSU would win easily.

And yet (AND YET) at no point on Tuesday did I think, “Man, I wish OSU was up by 100 strokes right now.” A counterpoint to the rhetoric emanating from Karsten this week: Match play is awesome and great for golf, even if it’s a necessary detriment to OSU. The same people who complain that the NBA Playoffs are boring because you know what’s going to happen are the ones clamoring for a format in which OSU wins by a million strokes on their home course.

That might be better for bragging rights, sure, but I’m here for the drama. Stick it in my veins, bring me all the Scam Newton signs this afternoon and give me two more matches of chaos.

Here’s a look at the semifinal matchups. I will be the one walking 14 holes with Wolff as his ascent to superstardom continues.

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