Chris Haack, the University of Georgia golf coach, was right about one thing.
"From now on in college golf, when people talk about THE match, well, that was THE match," Haack said, remembering the silver lining in a day that eventually turned as gunboat gray as the blustery evening sky for his Bulldogs.
Friday morning, when the sun was bright in a sea of blue, Georgia enjoyed one of the great moments in college golf history. In a No. 1 vs. No. 2 confrontation against top-ranked Oklahoma State, Bulldog ace Brian Harman dug deep and produced a startling birdie-birdie-birdie finish to cap his team's quarterfinal match-play victory at the NCAA championships.
When his last eight-foot putt disappeared into the cup in a match against Cowboy star Rickie Fowler, the roar from the crowd gathered around the 18th green at Inverness Club and the electricity it generated matched just about any touchdown scored between the hedges.
Even the losers recognized that they had been a part of something special.
"It didn't come out in my favor, but that's probably the most fun I've had in golf," Fowler said.
Added OSU coach Mike McGraw, who had every reason to hate the first-time format that saw eight teams advance to match play after 54 holes of stroke play: "There are a lot of coaches who have been detractors of this format. They needed to be here today. You have to take your hat off to Brian Harman. That was unbelievable the way he finished. It's something that will be remembered for a long, long time."
The Cowboys dominated a 30-team field by 13 shots over 54 holes of stroke play. Under the old format, they would have played another 18 holes and hoisted the trophy. It might not have been very exciting for anyone but them.
Match play changed everything. After Georgia unintentionally sandbagged its way to the eighth seed by finishing 20 shots behind the Cowboys in stroke play, the OSU-UGa pairing came earlier than originally expected.
So Haack was right. It was THE match. The thing is, his team had to play another.
"We might not have got the trophy, but in our minds we won the national championship this morning," Haack said.
In my mind, I'm skinny and good lookin'. But it doesn't work that way. The national champion will be either Arkansas or Texas A&M, which meet for the title this morning at 10. The Hogs, also from the Southeastern Conference, popped Georgia's big bubble in the semifinals while the Aggies ended Michigan's Cinderella run.
"It was such an emotional high," Harman said of his and his team's morning victory. "To try to come back out and grind out another one was really tough. I know it took a toll on me."
Arkansas was sort of counting on it. Coach Brad McMakin said he hoped Georgia "might take us a little bit for granted that they'd overlook us and we could jump on them early."
Michigan wasn't overlooking anyone, for sure, but the Wolverines likely experienced the same type of emotional letdown after Lion Kim hit an extraordinary approach shot on the 17th hole - he pounded a
2-iron hybrid from 212 yards to within 10 inches of the cup - to close out UM's quarterfinal upset of Southern Cal.
But neither he nor Alexander Sitompul, Michigan's No. 2 player, could begin to hold the Aggies at bay during the afternoon round.
So, yes, THE match was played yesterday morning. It will live on in college golf lore.
But the championship match will be Saturday, and Nos. 1 and 2 are long gone.
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