(Be forewarned, fellow Wayniacs. It has been sometime since I posted. Clear your schedule, we got a long piece ahead of us.)
The US Open is right around the corner. If you really put any thought into it, it is really one of the coolest concepts in sports. Amateurs, as long as they maintain a certain criteria, can actually play their way in to a Major event and play alongside golf legends.
As a big fan of baseball, football and basketball, this idea is inconceivable. Hell, even the field of players that move on to pros from college is really microscopic if you look at the grand scheme of things. That’s what makes the US Open fun and exciting.
It’s not like these amateurs are going to upend the system. Only five have ever won. Bobby Jones was the biggest name to win an Open, and obviously many other accolades. The last one was John Goodman in 1933.
This year, the US Open will have a lot more of my attention than usual. Not much is different in the public eye, no major story lines are unfolding, but I have a personal connection to the 2015 Open.
Two weeks ago, the best of DI Men’s Golf squared off for their NCAA 2015 Championships at The Concession Golf Club in Bradenton, Florida. 30 of the nation’s best teams along with 6 of the top scoring individuals made for a field of 156 of some of the best amateurs in the land.
I spent 7 days watching these top amateurs grind out round upon round in the grueling Florida heat covering the event for NCAA.com. That’s why I am so intrigued by this years’ US Open field: of the 16 amateurs taking the course this week, I saw 10 play up close and personal for the very least 4 straight days. Of those 10, I interviewed 5. That doesn’t even include Cheng-Tsung Pan, who graduated from University of Washington and is a professional now.
More impressively, The Concession was no amateur course. There was a 606-yard par 5. For those of you who have golfed with me, you know one of two things would have happened were I to tee off on a 606-yard par 5. One option would see me throwing my entire bag into the lake in frustration. The other option would see me take the equivalent of the duration of the newest Hunger Games movie to reach said hole. Point is, this was one of the most difficult courses I have ever seen.
The Concession was designed Jack Nicklaus and Tony Jacklin. It was named after the infamous Ryder Cup tie, the first in the event’s history, in which Nicklaus conceded to Jacklin. For those that don’t know Jacklin, he is pretty much the Jack Nicklaus of British golf. This course was seemingly not constructed for good days.
It was a course full of endlessly long fairways and greens designed for a short course. I watched one golfer from Oklahoma struggle with the 13th hole, a par 5 with the most absurd green I had ever seen. If you hit the ball too hard approaching the green, you rolled off the backside, down a hill so steep it took a few shots to get back to the pin. If you hit it too lightly, the ball wouldn’t stick and you would roll down the hill on the front side. The fact that college golfers — “amateurs” if you would — were able to keep their composure on these treacherous terrains could serve as an advantage in the Open. Of course, they didn’t have Rory McIlroy or Jordan Spieth gunning for them, but you get the point.
That’s how the NCAA Championships started out, as a war of attrition. Day 1 saw the Fighting Illini as the only team to finish a with a combined under par score. Brian Campbell and Nick Hardy were two of the leaders of a team that came into the Championships with 3 of the nation’s best golfers. Campbell and Hardy will be playing this week at the US Open, but more on them later.
The surprise of Day 1 was the Georgia Bulldogs. The 33rd ranked team in the country won the morning session by shooting even par and ended the day in second place overall. That’s when I met Lee McCoy, who will be at the Open this weekend as well. Who is Lee McCoy you ask? Well, here is my Day 1 interview with him and UGA Head Coach Chris Haack to find out –> BEWARE OF THE DAWG!
McCoy was the No. 5 golfer in the NCAAs. At first glance he reminds you of the Shermenator from the American Pie movies. When you watch him play and talk to him, he reminds you of a seasoned vet who has been on the tour for years.
McCoy started the tournament slow — for him, at least. By the end of the tournament, he was one of the hottest golfers left standing — both physically in the Florida heat and the groove in which he was in. He was really fun to watch and being only a junior, there will be a lot more to see from him in the future.
The Bulldogs made an impressive run, staying atop the leaderboard throughout the first five days. The quarterfinals saw an exciting matchup of two teams not many expected to be there. UGA would defeat the University of South Florida. For USF it was their first ever NCAA Championship and they made it to the quarterfinals. For UGA, they would advance as the only team outside of the top 10 to the Final Four, where they would lose to the eventual 2015 NCAA Champs, the LSU Tigers.
The quarterfinals also saw the coming of age of one of the tournaments’ freshman. Both USC and Illinois would make the semifinals led into battle behind a duo of freshman. Nick Hardy of Illinois, who as I already mentioned will be at the US Open this weekend, single handedly put them into the semifinals with the match winning putt over UCLA in one of the most exciting matches of the entire weekend.
UCLA was nearly out of contention. The NCAA Tournament is a grind. The first four days are stroke play. When those days are finished the top 8 teams move on to two days of tournament style match play. Heading into the third day of stroke play, UCLA was outside the Top 15. That’s when a hole-in-one by Preston Valder and the strong play of Jonathan Garrick led to an 8-under day and back into the Top 10.
Anyhoo, I digress. The matchup between the Illini and UCLA came down to the final putt, and the freshman Nick Hardy clinched it. Three members of those squads will appear in the US Open this week: Hardy, Campbell and UCLA’s Jake Knapp. There was no shortage of star power in the quarterfinals. The quarterfinals had a different feel than the other days, as there were actually clouds in the sky, rain in the air, and a breeze that hadn’t been felt in days. Here was my recap.
Like I said, the NCAA Championships are a grind. Those first four days of stroke play not only eventually decide the final 8 teams that would square off in match play for the title, but it decides the individual NCAA champion as well. The lowest score after four days has the honor of being the best golfer in collegiate golf. And that honor went to SMU’s Bryson Dechambeau.
Dechambeau was on fire from the second the tournament opened. He shot a 2-under on Day 1, and then a 5-under on Day 2. That was the first time I met up with him. And I liked what I saw. Look! That’s my hand and microphone (video from the SMU Athletics archive)!!!
Dechambeau became a celebrity over his five days on the course. He was so at home on the camera, and it never felt rehearsed. You wanted to talk to him, because he wanted to talk to you. But rising to the top, despite jumping out to a huge start, quickly became tough.
One of the best story lines of my week in Bradenton was on Day 4. Heading into Day 4, the field of 30 is cut to 15 to decide the Race for Eight. Washington and SMU wound up being tied for 15th, and the day started with a playoff hole. Dechambeau led the Mustangs to victory over Cheng-Tsung Pan’s Huskies.That wouldn’t be the last time they would battle, as Pan caught fire on the last day and would challenge Dechambeau for the individual championship to the final putt.
Pan would shoot a 5-under on that final day of stoke play and lose out by a mere one stroke to the 2015 NCAA Individual Golf Champ. It was an exciting day for both (I know, I know, you are interested in how they both felt after such a trying day. Don’t worry, here is my recap with their reactions right…. HERE). Now, they both hope to continue that excitement at Chamber’s Bay.
Jack Maguire from FSU, Beau Hossler from Texas, Matthew NeSmith from University of Kid Robot (South Carolina) and Denny McCarthy from UVA were all in Bradenton that week and will now head to the US Open. One person I wasn’t able to catch up with was Georgia Tech’s Ollie Schniederjans. He will be in he US Open and heading into this season, he was widely considered the best amateur in the world. It will be exciting to see how he responds after Ga Tech was — somewhat surprisingly — bumped from the tournament before the final 8.
My time with these collegiate athletes and in Bradenton was one of the most fun experiences I ever had. It was a grind for us media, too. Many were there for both the Women’s and Men’s. It was long, hot days, but it was pretty fun golf through it all. I wouldn’t trade that experience for the world, and if I had the opportunity to do it again, I wouldn’t hesitate (My final thoughts from my week at The Concession can be read HERE).
That’s why I am so intrigued by this year’s US Open. While everyone will be watching what names like Mickelson and Woods are doing, I’ll be watching names like McCoy and Dechambeau and wondering how Hunter Stewart and Maverick McNealy didn’t make it, or what the young upstarts from Southern California, who lost out to LSU in the finals are up to this weekend.
Don’t say I didn’t warn ya, I told you from the get go you had a long post on your hands. Sorry I’m not sorry. Till next time, folks. I’ll probably be still working my way down that 606-yard hole…
(All articles linked from NCAA.com and were written by yours truly. All photos courtesy of my iPhone unless otherwise noted.)