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Nine Thoughts on Oklahoma State’s 11th Golf National Championship

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STILLWATER, Okla. — Oklahoma State easily rolled to its 11th national title in golf on Wednesday in Stillwater 5-0-0 over Alabama as the Pokes became the first team to ever make a clean sweep of the title matches.

It got late early, as they say, when Zach Bauchou did his best “Patrick Reed at Karsten Creek” impression and went out in 29 to dust Jonathan Hardee 8 and 7. 1-0 Pokes. Viktor Hovland did Viktor Hovland things and took his second straight match of the week 4 and 3 (and third match overall). 2-0 Pokes.

The Tide never turned (or came close to turning) for Alabama, and the only question was who held the dagger. Fittingly, it was the best freshman in college golf and the guy who’d had head coach Alan Bratton by his side for every hole of the tournament.

Matthew Wolff made birdie at the par-3 15th to close out Davis Riley (who has an incredible swing) and deliver OSU its first national championship since 2006 and first of the match play era. The thick ring that encircled the 15th exploded as Wolff lustily delivered fist pump after fist pump while a chuckling Mike Holder drank it all in.

 

 

 

 

 

There are a million ways college golf events can end. This one was about as perfect as it gets, which is fitting because a mostly perfect team just touched off a pretty perfect season in which it tied the school record for wins (10), consecutive wins (7) and somehow flipped what portended to be an ordinary championship into an extraordinary closing kick and became the first No. 1 seed in match play history to hold a trophy at the end of the week.

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Nine thoughts on a heady day in Stillwater.

1. It Felt Over Early

When Wolff and Hovland both won their first holes and Bauchou started galloping, it felt like one of two scenarios would play out. The first was what happened. OSU got its scare in the quarterfinals against Texas A&M before pummeling both sides of the Iron Bowl (there must be a pun in there somewhere and I cannot find it!). The second is that one or two OSU golfers would end the festivities but Bama would reel in two or three others. That, unfortunately for them, did not even come close to happening.

Of the 66 holes that were played on Wednesday, OSU trailed for seven of them. IN THE NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP!

2. The scene on No. 15

It’s difficult to describe what the very end of a match play tournament like this is like. Everything all week takes so long to complete. Stroke play is a slog. Tuesday’s matches are an eternity. Then you have to wait for forever for the finals to start on Wednesday. After it starts, though, it always goes by in what feels like an hour. That’s exacerbated when a team gets going downhill like OSU did in the finals.

When Wolff got to the 15th tee, we knew Hovland was over, and we knew Bauchou had nearly Stephen Amesed his opponent. What we didn’t know is whether Wolff’s match would end there or on one of the three holes after it.

I presumed early on that Wolff carried the haymaker, and I was giddy to watch the week’s main event deliver it because I knew the aftermath would reverberate. I stood off to the side as he walked up to the green with Bratton on his side. An orange sphere swallowed them whole as fans from all parts of the course came running when they realized what we were all realizing: OSU was about to win the national championship.

Of course the place exploded with ecstasy when he ran it home, but I watched three people. Wolff, who gave me everything I wanted. Bratton, who looked as if Wolff had just bogeyed the first at Lakeside. And Holder, who gave his signature curling smile behind a pair of shades. I looked over at him and said, “pretty cool.” He just nodded and kept smiling at what he’d built.

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3. Zach Bauchou is a media dream

The junior gave about 15 quotes this weekend that made me look over at my writing partner for the week, Sean Martin, and gasp. A sampling:

• “I don’t think there’s any pressure when you’re as good as we are throughout the lineup.”

• (On Tuesday): “But tomorrow will be the big celebration. That’s what we’re focused on.”

• “I played really well. I stepped up. I looked really good. It was nice.”

Then that dude went out and shot a dang 29 on the front complete with a hole-out on No. 9 and pulled the ol’ “out last, in first” routine. As poor as he was early in the week, he was majestic late, and OSU needed him.

Speaking of front nines. How do you think Bama’s Lee Hodges felt going out in 2-under 34 and taking a 3 down clip going to the back? Whoooo boy, this OSU team was loaded, and they put it on full display over the final two days.

4. Matthew Wolff the superstar

There’s no doubt who the breakout star of the week was this week. The true freshman and his unique, sometimes-breathtaking swing stole the show on a national level. The IPO has hit. Carson and I own all of the stock.

I know he didn’t win this year, but he finished first of OSU players in five different tournaments, and I feel confident saying I know what potential superstars look and sound like.

Golf (like many sports) is very strange, and ambiguous “it” traits are often overrated, but the point of them is that they are indecipherable and so often veiled by a million other things (like funky takeaways or non-traditional attire). Wolff checks the boxes, though. He passes the eye test, the ear test and, maybe most importantly, he has the look. The aura. All the great ones have it. All the future pros. If you were around this team for 15 minutes and nobody ever picked up a club, it would be very easy to perceive the alpha. The pro. He’s it. And it showed this week.

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5. Crowds showed out

Bratton has been clamoring for big boy galleries for the last few months (he mentioned it when I talked to him back in March). Wednesday’s masses were the apex of the week, and they included a who’s who list of contemporary OSU coaches. To name a few: Mike Boynton, Kasey Dunn, Kenny Gajewski, Keiton Page and Joe Bob Clements.

And we haven’t even gotten to the former golfers who were there. Bratton said he texted every former player he had in his phone on Wednesday morning, and heard back from pretty much all of them (most of whom were in attendance).

Then he thanked them all on the 18th green on Wednesday night.

6. How Driven helped

I thought something Kristoffer Ventura said on Wednesday evening was pretty fascinating about how the four-part documentary on Golf Channel really helped prep OSU for an in-your-face week at Karsten.

“It’s just been amazing,” said Ventura. “I think in the beginning, the cameras were on us the whole time and it was kind of uncomfortable, but we got used to that, and I think that helped a lot this week. Just getting used to the distractions and people around us and everyone up in your face, that definitely helped us this week.

“That was a huge advantage because once the team started playing us and they saw the people and the cameras, I think that’s when we stepped up and were able to play well.”

7. Great Expectations

One of the unique pieces of this championship is that OSU somehow took what felt inevitable — like the Warriors waltzing to a title or, say, Alabama winning another football championship in 2019 (on their home field!) — and made it seem extraordinary. They turned a long march into the abyss for the rest of college golf and made it feel special.

I’m maybe only saying that because I’m so deep inside it, and I’m not totally sure why I feel that way. Maybe it’s because they haven’t won one since 2006 and that drought had so much to do with match play. And maybe part of it was because it came at Karsten, but I thought the galvanizing nature of Wolff, Hovland and Eckroat shined all week and sucked everybody into what should have been a pretty blasé narrative.

8. Best team ever?

We can debate it forever. Twelve different teams have now won eight or more times in a season, and six of those put a national title exclamation mark on the end. It’s tough to crown a team that didn’t win its own conference, but I bet this 2018 version is just excited to be in the conversation.

“One of our goals for the year has been to win more tournaments than they have done,” said Bauchou (the quote machine). “This week was … I’m counting the stroke play, but our 11th win.

“I don’t think any other Oklahoma State team has ever done that. I remember talking to Coach Holder after we lost the Big 12, and I said, ‘Coach, we’re still the best team Oklahoma State has ever had.’ He said, ‘No, you’re not.’ But I told him, ‘Hey, after we win the national championship, we’ll go out to have lunch and we’ll talk about it.’

“I remember talking to Sam about it after we won our last tournament in Atlanta in the fall, and I said, ‘Sam, I think we might win all of them in the spring.'”

They nearly did. This NCAAs was their eight in 10 tries since the calendar flipped to 2018. The scariest part? Everybody is back next year except for Ventura.

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9. The End

You should go watch the Mike Holder videos I posted. Regardless of how you feel about him, he talks about some incredibly compelling things. Why Rickie Fowler is so important to OSU. Where this one ranks among the 11. What Boone Pickens taught him about taking advice from people.

But mostly he talked about hope and the future. He told us about quote he gave OSU’s team recently. He didn’t think it up, but I’d believe it if somebody told me he did. The quote was this: “If youth knew. If age could.”

I could construct worlds around that singular quote, but I won’t because I think it stands sturdily on its own. It encompasses worlds.

“I told them in 1968 — 50 years ago — I teed it up in this championship,” said Holder. “This is what I would tell (that version of me): ‘This is the greatest time of your life,’ and then I expounded on what that meant.”

For most of these guys, this is the peak of their golf career. Not everybody is a Wolff. Many of these dudes will never play in front of this many people again. This was it. For some of them, this was their last college tournament ever. There was an Alabama senior they showed on Golf Channel before the matches started. He said he couldn’t believe how fast it all went. You know, the usual trope. It seemed genuine, though, and it was.

I talked to two people on Wednesday associated with OSU golf. The first was Zack Robinson, who played on the 2006 team. The second was Ryan Cameron, OSU’s sports information director for men’s golf. I chatted briefly (and separately) with them about the last time OSU held a trophy. All three of us were in our 20s then. We aren’t anymore. That was a long time ago. Before many of us were married or had kids or real jobs or any of that.

Sports are sports, and they’re great. Titles are awesome. OSU has 52 of them now, and this was my first to ever see in person. But sports also have a way of drawing out of you markers of time that feel important when you’re in them. I felt that when Holder talked. I felt it when Cameron and Robinson talked, too.

Wednesday was special, and there’s an irony that the five guys who kissed a trophy at the end of a wild week at Karsten might have the worst vantage point for what they just accomplished. I asked Holder how he was able to convince these kids to appreciate the present.

“It’s impossible,” he said with a grin. “They’ll figure it out when they’re my age.”

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