By Ken MacLeod
STILLWATER – Oklahoma State golf coach Alan Bratton hasnâ€™t started the same five-man lineup two times consecutively all season.
Thatâ€™s a measure of the depth and competitiveness of this Cowboy squad, which Wednesday romped to a 19-shot victory over second-place Oklahoma in an NCAA Regional on their home course at Karsten Creek Golf Club. But will it hold true when the Cowboys go to the NCAA Championship May 27-June 1 at Eugene (Ore.) Country Club?
Bratton is not committing, but it would be hard to change the starting five again after all five players he put out this week had outstanding moments, including an individual victory by Kristoffer Ventura, who closed with a 1-over 73 to finish at even-par 216. He finished one shot ahead of Antoine Rozner of UMKC and two shots clear of teammate Stratton Nolen.
Nolen, who started a late-season surge by leading the Cowboys at the rain-shortened Maxwell tournament in Ardmore, then stormed to a wire-to-wire victory at the Big 12 Championship, nearly won his second consecutive event. He led this event through 36 holes, but shot 41 on the front nine. Birdies on holes 15 and 16 put him in a tie with Ventura before a triple bogey on the par-4 17th derailed his chances. He birdied 18 to pull back within two.
Nolen said he was struggling mightily to find his game coming out of the semester break over the holidays, but something clicked with his swing in February. He called his father to tell him he thought he had found it, but didnâ€™t know on this deep team if he would get many more opportunities. Fortunately for him, Bratton is a firm believer in using qualifying scores in practice as well as tournament performance. Thus Nolen and sophomore Sam Stevens were in the lineup, while former All-Americans Wyndham Clark and Zachary Olsen were among the talented Cowboys players cheering on their teammates.
Stevens, whose grandfather Johnny Stevens and father Charlie Stevens are amateur golf legends in Kansas, shot solid rounds of 72-75-74 to finish tied for sixth despite starting Tuesday with consecutive double bogeys and beginning the final round with a quadruple bogey nine on the par-5 first hole.
Jordan Niebrugge, the senior All-American, shot 75 in the final round to finish fifth at 4-over. Brendon Jelley of Tulsa finished with a 73 to tie for 17th at 10-over.
â€œWeâ€™ve just been playing the guys who have been playing the best here at home, and Sam and Stratton have both had an opportunity to play their way in and they did it,â€ Bratton said. â€œItâ€™s really fun to see their hard work pay off. They need to thank their teammates who have provided the competition all year long. Itâ€™s really neat to see. I wish we could play 10, because weâ€™ve got a really deep team.â€
â€œSam showed a lot of toughness, starting double-double yesterday and with the quad today. And youâ€™ve got to give a lot of credit to Stratton. The way he carries himself on the golf course is contagious and itâ€™s been huge for our team. . . . All of our guys played well and showed toughness in different ways this week. You donâ€™t always see it on the scoreboard, but knowing what they did through their round and how they sliced up that scoreboard, it was great to see.â€
â€œWhen 2016 rolled around, it was a rough couple of months,â€ Nolen said. â€œSomething finally clicked in and ever since then Iâ€™ve been playing well. I realized after the Maxwell that I can play with the best. It definitely gave me the confidence that propelled me into the Big 12. And that told me when Iâ€™m playing my best, I can take down a lot of really good players.â€
Oklahoma was in second place from start to finish in easily qualifying for its sixth consecutive NCAA Championships . Others to advance were Clemson, Louisville and Purdue.
The Sooners were led by Max McGreevy, who finished with a 75 to take fourth at 3-over, his fourth top-five finish of the season. Grant Hirschman shot 73 and tied for eighth at 6-over, while Brad Dalke struggled to an 81 in the final round and dropped into a tie for 15th. Blaine Hale shot 78 to tie for 27th and Luke Kwon shot 76 and tied for 44th.
â€œWe didnâ€™t play well today, but fortunately we played solid the first two days and there was enough cushion there,â€ said OU coach Ryan Hybl. â€œThe golf course played pretty tough. Overall, Iâ€™m super excited for the opportunity to go to the NCAA.
â€œOklahoma State is really, really good. For us, our mission was to get over here and try to find a way to compete. Thatâ€™s what our expectations are and should be. I feel like our guys did a good job.â€
OU joins Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, USC and Texas as the only programs to have qualified for the NCAA Championships each of the last six years.
Complete team and individual results as well as hole-by-hole scoring are at www.golfstat.com.