BRADENTON, Fla – Two stories emerged from the first day of match play.
The first: LSU upsetting #2 Vanderbilt 3 ½ to 1 ½.
The second: LSU upsetting # 3 Georgia 3 ½ to 1 ½.
Vanderbilt, the favorite over LSU, underestimated the Tigers, who seemed to have paced themselves perfectly throughout the week of competition, peaking at the right moment in the championship – the penultimate day of the 2015 Division I National Championship – conquering, first Vanderbilt in the morning, and then Georgia in the afternoon.
Lightning and thunder delayed the start of play for the semifinals between the University of Georgia and Louisiana State University, and the University of Southern California and Illinois.
“Believe me, they’re scared,” the University of Georgia assistant coach, Jim Douglas, told Greyson Sigg before he teed off against his opponent, Eric Ricard of LSU. Douglas and his bulldogs underestimated their SEC rival. LSU wasn’t scared. They were ready.
Greyson Sigg could not even extend the match with a birdie, because, right on top of Greyson’s 2 -foot birdie putt, Eric Ricard dropped a 25-foot bomb, halving the hole, and squelching Greyson’s final effort to continue the match.
Georgia was on the ropes. The momentum was against them.
It’s like a marathon. The length measured at 8.5 miles all the way around the cart path one time. The best of their stamina was needed to survive the day, as each player walked 17 miles and played 36 holes of golf.
LSU’s head coach, Chuck Winstead, said “it was a long day,” referring to uncertain weather conditions and player fatigue, but he said that “when you are playing for a national championship, tired doesn’t work.”
Coach Winstead walked with Ben Taylor during both match play rounds, because “he didn’t play well in stroke play, and I felt like we needed to win there,” coach Winstead said. Ben went on to win against Matthias Schwab of Vanderbilt in the morning and defeat Zach Healy of Georgia in the afternoon. Ben Taylor sealed the match against Healy by hitting a 6-iron approach-shot five feet from the hole.
“Zach is a freshmen and has a great future ahead of him.” Coach Winstead said.
Lee McCoy of Georgia answered for a mediocre stroke play performance with two commanding victories in match play, leading his Bulldogs to an admirable semi-final effort against fellow SEC rival, LSU.
The one and only goal for tonight: “Get ‘em fed & Get ‘em to bed,” Coach Winstead declared.
The key to turning the program around: “Hard work and failure,” he said. “We fail, and then we learn. And over and over again, until we have it right.”
At this moment, on the biggest collegiate stage of the year, LSU seems to have it right. They are ready to contest for their 5th national championship beginning tomorrow at 10:00AM E.T.
Challenging LSU will be the USC Trojans, who are playing for their first national championship, as the result of a dramatic quarter-final round, upsetting Texas in a tight match, which had three groups reach #18 at ALL SQUARE, requiring a playoff to determine the third and deciding point.
The afternoon match between USC and Illinois held at ALL SQUARE for most of the round, with both teams exchanging momentum.
The top seeded Illinois, who had been showing signs all week of total control, let the championship slip away, adding yet another national tournament to join the bitter defeat to Alabama in the 2013 national championship.
Mike Small – head coach at Illinois – told Golf Channel’s Angela Hamman, “we knew this week that once you get into match play it’s a sprint and that comes with uncertainty.” He shrugged, “we have had a great season…a lot to be proud of, a lot to build on…you wanna win, that’s the goal,” he said.
The hardest part about competing in match play of the national championship is “the pressure,” Coach Zambri said. “The pressure that comes with trying to do something great.”
Coach Zambri is largely speechless after the round, unable to articulate how they made it to the finals. “I don’t know…they’re just good players.” he said, “They’re good players playing well, and so I don’t know if it goes much deeper than that.”
Golf is simple. Sometimes, when a player is on…they’re just on, and there’s nothing even they can do to interrupt that momentum, it belongs to some intersection of athletic destiny and muscle memory…some kind of competitive fire that can block-out the self doubt long enough to compete when it’s all on the line.
“We are excited about tomorrow,” Zambri said. “It would mean the world to me… and to all the guys who came through program who didn’t get the opportunity to play for a championship.”
But tomorrow, USC’s competition – LSU – has the same level of confidence, playing at their jolly-attitude to go along with it, “I couldn’t be more excited. I am just so proud of my team. We’ve been working hard for this all year long, and the hard work is paying off. I just couldn’t be happier to get started tomorrow.” Stewart Jolly of LSU said after today’s round. As his teammate, Benjamin Taylor, harkened back to last year’s national championship, “It was a big day for us, because I know that a lot of the guys were very motivated to get to the final after what happened last year…We know that we’re good enough to compete in the finals of the national championship, and we’re all very excited to go compete tomorrow.”
LSU will play for its fifth title, while Southern California competes for its first. Live coverage begins on the Golf Channel at 11:30AM