June 1, 2013
By Matt Winkeljohn
MILTON, Ga. – It was odd when it ended. As Georgia Tech’s golf season was stopped in its tracks in Saturday’s national semifinal against Alabama, there were moments nearly as poignant as a day earlier.
Big difference, though; they were not fun.
Friday, Ollie Schniederjans tapped in from 30 inches on his first playoff hole to win his match and push the Yellow Jackets past UNLV and into the Final Four. There was whooping and hollering, chest bumping, high fiving and all that.
Saturday, there were vacant stares and near silence as Alabama wrapped up its 3-0-2 win over Tech at the Capital City Club’s Crabapple course. The Crimson Tide will go on to play Illinois, which shocked No. 1-ranked California, in the final.
All square in his match with Alabama’s Scott Strohmeyer, Bo Andrews stood on the 18th green with a putt of about four feet for par. He looked at Strohmeyer, who had a similar putt waiting. They each shrugged their shoulders, said something to one another, and then picked up their golf balls. Over.
They’d heard the cheers rise moments earlier from the 17th green behind them. ‘Bama’s Justin Thomas had parred the hole and when Tech’s Seth Reeves bogeyed, that gave Thomas the match 3 and 1, and gave the Tide a clinching 3-0 lead.
Over on No. 16, Anders Albertson was in a playoff with Alabama’s Bobby Wyatt. They just stopped playing mid-hole.
Just like that, frozen at the switch.
The Tide, with the nation’s No. 3- (Wyatt), 4- (Cory Whitsett) and 8-ranked players (Thomas) are back in the national finale, where they lost to Texas last season.
Andrews and Albertson halved their matches, but Reeves, Schniederjans and Shun Yat Hak all fell in match play as the No. 8 Jackets were done in by the No. 2 Tide.
“Yesterday, after we finished up, there is no better feeling because you’re that much closer to your goal,” Albertson said. “Now, you realize that you were so close from getting to where you wanted to be … it’s kind of the direct opposite.”
The Jackets were close for a while.
Early, Hak was 2-up through seven holes. Ahead of him, Albertson was 1-up after 10, and Andrews was up for nine consecutive holes in the third pairing.
On the flip side, Schniederjans trailed from the very first hole after Whitsett birdied on the way to his 3 and 2 win. Reeves trailed from the second hole, where Thomas birdied.
This was the first NCAA championship tournament for every Jacket.
Four ‘Bama players are back from the team that last year won stroke play by seven shots before falling to Texas in the national championship match.
“From the time [juniors] Bobby (Wyatt) and Cory (Whitsett) got to Tuscaloosa, that’s been one of the best teams in the country,” said Tech coach Bruce Heppler. “It’s no shame to lose to them.
“They’re awesome. Those three guys up at the front may be three of the best eight or nine players in the country. They all may be on the Walker Cup team. Those are three big-time guys.”
The Jackets are big-time guys, too. The fact that they had no national championship experience needs to be noted, though not used as an end-all excuse. Tech did, after all, finish second in stroke play to No. 1-ranked Cal after taking the Day Two lead.
Every Tech player who participated is to return next season, and the Jackets will have rising sophomore Michael Hines, who played a good bit this season, and rising senior Richy Werenski, who played quite a bit as a freshman (including in the NCAA tournament) and as a sophomore. The Jackets also have a recruit coming.
This even does not come down entirely to past history or experience; it’s about who makes the shots.
Schniederjans was even on the front nine, yet trailed already by four against Whitsett.
“He’s really led us and jumped on arguably Georgia Tech’s best player and that gave everybody else confidence,” said Alabama coach Jay Seawell. “For him to be in command all day long really helped out the rest of us.”
“I wanted him to play Ollie. They are friends and Ollie is a great guy. We recruited him since he was 15. I knew he was a great young man. I wanted Cory to play Ollie.”
Hak’s 2-up lead vanished when opponent Trey Mullinax birdied No. 8 and then Hak conceded the ninth after missing what would have been a clinching putt.
The Tech freshman halved No. 10, and then lost Nos. 11, 12, 13 and 14 as Mullinax went birdie-eagle-par (to Hak’s bogey)-birdie.
This event, especially with this format (three days of stroke play, and then the low eight scoring teams to a match play tournament) is wildly unpredictable.
Illinois, which entered the NCAAs ranked No. 22, pulled off a massive upset in beating No. 1 Cal 3-2 in the other semi, and the Fighting Illini did it with two freshmen, two sophomores and junior Thomas Pieters. Illinois had finished 11 strokes behind Cal in stroke play.
Pieters, a Belgian, won the clinching match 1-up on the second playoff hole when Cal’s Max Homa lipped out a nine-foot putt. That wrapped up a duel between last year’s NCAA individual champion, Pieters, and this year’s medalist, Homa.
Think about that: this year’s medalist missed the putt that eliminated a team that put together probably the best season in the history of college golf. And that was just minutes after his chip from the fringe of the first playoff hole settled within two inches, maybe less, of winning.
The Bears won 11 of 13 tournaments this season entering the NCAAs (tying Tech for the title last fall at the PING/Golfweek Classic), and their golfers were medalists in nine events. Homa made it 10 when he won the NCAA individual title Thursday.
“Some days they go. The reality is for most of the season they went in. We lost to four teams all year and beat over 200 teams,” said Cal coach Steve Desimone. “We had a lot of great days this year; it just so happens that today wasn’t one of them.”
Cal is done.
And so is Tech.
For Tech, you’d like to think this was less an ending than a springboard.
“Yes, definitely,” Albertson said. “Alabama is a very good and an experienced team . . . they’ve been here and done this. This was the farthest we’ve ever gotten . . . We didn’t have anything holding us back but I guess we didn’t have any experience in this.”
Reeves said, “To get here and play very well in stroke play and finish second it just shows that we are one of the best teams in the country. It just shows the type of players we are. We’re all back next year.”
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