They've changed the way they do things for the NCAA men's golf championship. It's always been a 72-hole stroke play event as far as I can remember. That won't be the case this season and it could help No. 9 Arkansas.
Third-year coach Brad McMakin has the Hogs rolling as they head to Stillwater next week for regional play. The Hogs are the No. 2 seed behind host Oklahoma State. They need only to finish in the top five to advance to the national tournament.
We've been doing the regional thing in NCAA golf for several years, but what they've done to the format at nationals is where it gets interesting this year. The 30 teams advancing from regional play will go at it in 54 holes of stroke play, then the top eight will play two days of match play to crown the champion.
So how does that suit McMakin?
"I guess it's okay for us," he said. "Maybe that helps set up an upset. They changed it to supposedly create more interest. Maybe it does. I don't think what we had been doing was wrong, but who is to say match play isn't good."
They've had one match play event earlier in the year on the men's college circuit. Interestingly, Middle Tennessee, not in the top 70 most of the season, pulled the upset, making it out of the qualifier to win match play.
That will be harder to do in the regional format. A team will have to finish in the top five at its regional, then survive the 54-hole qualifier in a top eight spot at nationals before getting into the match play part of the format.
Right now, that isn't what Arkansas is thinking about. The men's team is focused on getting ready for a difficult test at Karsten Creek in Stillwater. It's one of the most difficult courses of any of the regional sites. McMakin liked the draw.
"It sets up well for our team," McMakin said. "It's very tight and we drive it well. Our strength is tee to green. We aren't long and it's not a course for bombers. The par fives aren't really reachable for anyone. And, Oklahoma State, the top seed there, drives it about the same length as us, so I'm sure it will be set up good for both of us. I'm sure they will set it up for them, and that is what we'd want, too."
Karsten Creek has no housing development on the interior of the course, meaning there is virgin timber just beyond the fairways on both sides, from No. 1 through 18.
"If you don't hit the fairway, you aren't in a place where you can chip out and play," McMakin said. "You lose your ball. You can't play foul balls, you don't find them."
That is fine with McMakin.
"Knock on wood, we do NOT hit very many foul balls," he said. "We drive it straight. We aren't really long. We've got one guy over 300 (Ethan Tracy) and the other four are 270 to 275. That's plenty long enough."
If McMakin had his way, the wind will blow.
"We are back at our practice facility right now working on keeping it low and taking spin off our wedges," he said. "That's the way we play. We do well in winds. The harder it blows, the better we like it. Our guys are not bothered by tough conditions or difficult golf courses.
"If the wind blows 30 and is howling, the scores will be outrageous and that's to our advantage because we are one of the best driving teams in the nation. We drive the ball in the fairway day in and day out better than anybody. We've played in the wind the last six weeks and we've played fantastic.
"Karsten Creek is tough, but I don't think we have a fear factor going over there. We haven't shot many high scores. At conference, we didn't have a guy shoot over 76 and that was in high winds. We had an injury at Texas and played two rounds with just four guys and finished second."
That doesn't mean the four counters were 76 and below. The entire five-man squad shot 76 or below in every round.
"There weren't any other teams that could say that," McMakin said. "That's been our strength all year.
"Our guys are mentally tough. When we get two or three over early, they bring it back. They find a way to give us a counter score. They are VERY tough. Our guys are very sound.
"Karsten Creek is a course just like what we play at home where 72 means something. If you shoot around par at The Blessings, it's a good score. So that's what we play every day and that won't bother us at Karsten Creek. The problem with Karsten Creek is the severity of the greens. When the wind blows, it's tough to putt them. If we just a decent week putting, we'll have no problem at all with that course."
This Arkansas team wasn't on the radar when it started the year, but a possible national championship wouldn't be farfetched with the way it played of late. The Hogs finished second at the SEC tournament and played solid in every round.
They are talented from one through five. These five haven't had any off days of late. Here's McMakin's assessment of his starting five as they head to regionals:
"Andrew Landry is starting to play his best golf," McMakin said. "He didn't have a great year, considering he was a two-time all-American. I expect him to be in the second team All-Ameircan range, and he was more third team or honorable mention range. But he's starting to play good at the right time. He's playing as good as he's played in his career right now. He's hitting it better and he's starting to putt it better.
"David Lingmerth has played really well of late. He had a great SEC and was really good at Texas, too. In my opinion, he plays hard golf courses really well.
"Ethan Tracy is the guy who has put us over the top. He's had six top 10s out of 11 tournaments. Ever since we played at USC in November, he's been out of the top 10 just once. He's been our ace.
"Jamie Marshall is as solid as any fifth man around. Then, we've had Jason Cuthbertson come in late in the year to play like an All-American. We didn't expect that. He's been a part of our big successes in the last month and a half. He's averaging 72.9 from a guy who wasn't starting. We've played harder golf courses since he's been in the lineup than we did at the first of the year. He's played great."
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