- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 3, 2004

HOT SPRINGS, Va. — UCLA’s Travis Johnson walked onto the 18th green at the Cascades Golf Course yesterday to a four-man standing ovation. The Bruins’ senior captain had just stuffed his tee shot on the 207-yard closer to three feet, and his teammates were doing their best to both extol and embarrass him.

Moments later, Johnson slipped home the birdie putt to give UCLA a five-stroke lead over Kentucky heading into today’s final round of the NCAA Championship, and his black-clad buddies erupted again. Johnson grinned, executed a sheepish half-bow and headed for the scorer’s table.

“That’s what college golf is all about,” said Johnson, who has paced UCLA to a 7-over total with rounds of 69-68-68 on the 6,679-yard, par-70 course at the famed Homestead Resort. “Nothing feels better than bringing your guys to their feet. A gallery roar is nice; a team roar is ecstasy.”

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In the loneliest of sports, only the Ryder Cup and its patriotic offspring come close to matching the solidarity of the NCAA Championship. This is not an individual event with a team element. First and foremost, golf’s NCAA Championship is a team event with an individual element.

Every season, the top 10 teams from each of Division I golf’s three regional tournaments (East, Midwest and West) advance to the 72-hole NCAA finals. Each of the 30 teams starts five players, and the four lowest scores from each team each day count toward the team’s aggregate score. After 54 holes, the bottom 15 teams are cut, leaving the remaining 15 to decide the winner of the coveted 6-foot trophy in one often wild day.

“It’s an extremely exciting format, largely because it’s so unpredictable,” said former U.S. Amateur champion and longtime Florida coach Buddy Alexander, whose favored Gators find themselves 11 strokes in arrears of UCLA. “This year nobody is very familiar with the course, which is atypical of the layouts we normally play in that it’s a relatively short, tight mountain course.

“And let’s face it, one hot player or a couple of cold ones can make or break the whole thing. Given the format, even though we won seven of the 14 events we played in this spring and spent pretty much the entire season ranked No.1, I never really felt like we were the favorites. Not only have we not played great of late, it seems like the No.1 team hardly ever wins.”

Perfect examples would be Stanford’s team in 1995 or Oklahoma State’s in 1986. The Cardinal lost in a playoff in 1995 despite a starting lineup that included first-team All-Americans Tiger Woods and Notah Begay and upperclassmen Casey Martin and Jerry Chang — a result Woods lists as one of the greatest disappointments of his career. In 1986, the Cowboys came up short despite a roster that included national player of the year Scott Verplank and eventual individual champions Brian Watts and E.J. Pfister.

That said, the top two teams in NCAA history consummated that status with national titles. In 1972, Texas teammates Ben Crenshaw and Tom Kite shared the individual title as the Longhorns cruised to their second consecutive team championship. And in 1975, a Wake Forest team led by individual champion Jay Haas, defending champion Curtis Strange and All-American Bob Byman won the team title by a record 33 strokes.

Despite the great teams and elite players that have competed, the NCAA Championship has never attained the same level of fan and media interest enjoyed by the U.S. Amateur. Why?

Unlike the U.S. Amateur, with its match-play format, the NCAAs are virtually impossible to broadcast in any cohesive way. The team leader board changes by the minute, leaving coaches and finished teammates scrambling all over the property to assess and encourage. And unlike the Amateur, the NCAAs never feature 14-year-old wunderkinds or fortysomething insurance salesmen on the crest of career weeks.

“I really enjoy the fact that it’s a little more mellow than the U.S. Amateur or a pro tour event,” said Wake Forest senior Bill Haas, this season’s Ben Hogan Award winner as the nation’s top college golfer and one of six individuals competing at this week’s NCAAs. Haas (70-68-67) trails UNLV’s Ryan Moore (70-67-64) by four strokes in the individual standings heading into today’s finale.

“For a lot of guys out here, this is one of the last weeks to just have fun and enjoy both the competition and the camaraderie before things become chaotic,” Haas said. “I’ve only got 18 holes of college golf left, and then I’m turning the page and heading into the next chapter. I’m ready to begin that new chapter, but I’m sure going to miss the comfort level I’ve found in the college game.”

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Haas and Moore, the top two players in the nation this season, are clearly exceptions to the field rule this week. Haas, the son of ageless tour staple Jay Haas, will turn pro after tomorrow’s final round and make his debut at the U.S. Open (if he qualifies next week) or at Avenel’s Booz Allen Classic, where he has received a sponsor’s exemption. And though Moore will return to UNLV for his senior season next year, he already carries a can’t-miss professional label.

But most of the players at the Cascades this week are clearly tour long shots. Guys like Cal’s Scott Carlyle, Georgia’s Kevin Kisner, and the Spitz brothers from Rhode Island are more the NCAA Championship norm.

Carlyle is a solid player (72.8 scoring average) but not a spectacular collegian. He isn’t likely to ever play the game for a living, but he is the top student athlete in Cal’s graduating class, boasting a 3.95 GPA in engineering.

“That’s one of the things that I think makes golf a little different than the higher profile college sports like football, basketball or baseball,” said Cal coach Steve Desimone. “The kids at this tournament, almost without exception, are student athletes in the purest sense. Scott is a brilliant kid, pure and simple. I’m lucky that he also happens to be a darned good golfer.”

Kisner, last year’s SEC freshman of the year, is in a slightly different class in that it’s too early to tell whether he has the game to make a career of golf. Like many of those in attendance, he’s still an extremely raw, if exceptionally talented, product. Accordingly, Kisner opened with a sterling 66 on Tuesday and then ballooned to an adios 80 on Wednesday.

“It happens — golf humbles us all,” Kisner said philosophically before retiring to the practice green for a laugh-laden putting contest with his teammates.

When is the last time you saw a PGA Tour player handle a disaster with such carefree aplomb?

Rhode Island’s Spitz brothers, senior David and freshman Ben, are representative of the largest contingent at the Cascades. Though the siblings are the strength of the Rams’ team, neither has realistic professional aspirations and both are ecstatic to be a part of the first team from New England to ever qualify for the NCAA Championship.

“It’s an incredible experience for the boys,” said father Bill Spitz, a dentist in Norwell, Mass. “They were excited about everything — from playing with the big boys to the bathrobes in the hotel. They were seeded 22nd out of 27 teams in the East regionals, so nobody expected them to even be here. It’s a big thrill for both the team and our family.”

The Rams finished last in the 30-team field, missing yesterday’s cut by more than 40 strokes. But their unlikely ride through the regionals and participation in the NCAAs is precisely the kind of story that makes the event so special. From Rhode Island to UCLA, the underlying theme of the NCAAs is the same: five friends enjoying an unforgettable week in the prime of their youth.

“We’ve been waiting a whole year for this week after coming so close last year and finishing third,” said UCLA’s Johnson, one of the Bruins’ four senior starters. “Honestly, we’ve played a little like the Lakers this season. We played kind of crummy, sort of messing around and just waiting for the playoffs. That’s not so good, but it’s reality. For four of us, this is our last chance at the title. We want this thing so badly, and now we’re just one round away. No matter what happens, we’re going to remember tomorrow forever.”

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