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Men’s golf corralled by Cowboys in NCAA semifinals

What a difference a day — a few hours, even — can make. On Monday evening, the Stanford men’s golf team was elated, having just earned the number-one seed for Tuesday and Wednesday’s match play rounds at the NCAA finals. They saw senior leader Cameron Wilson capture the coveted individual title in dramatic fashion and sophomore David Boote use an excellent final round to finish T-3rd. One got a sense that maybe, just maybe, this was their time. While the joy was tempered by the fact that there was still much golf to be played, everything seemed to be going the Cardinal’s way, with the players at the back-end of the lineup showing real promise on the Perry Maxwell-designed Prairie Dunes Country Club being the most encouraging sign.

Sophomore David, despite finishing tied for third in the individual championship that concluded on Monday, lost both of his matches on Tuesday as the Cardinal fell in the semifinals to OSU. (SHIRLEY PEFLEY/stanfordphoto.com)

Sophomore David Boote, despite finishing tied for third in the individual championship that concluded on Monday, lost both of his matches on Tuesday as the Cardinal fell in the semifinals to Oklahoma State. (SHIRLEY PEFLEY/stanfordphoto.com)

Even at noon on Tuesday, by which time the Card had defeated eighth-seed Illinois in the match play quarterfinals, the group still had dreams of trophy hoisting. Though they barely scraped by against the Illini, Stanford had already activated survive-and-advance mode — a win is a win is a win, no matter how big or small. To say they were relieved doesn’t do the gravity of the situation justice — after all, this was win or go home.

Those feelings did a complete 180-degree turn by Tuesday evening, when the Card were closely ousted in the match play semifinals by Oklahoma State, losing ever so slightly 3-2. Any hopes head coach Conrad Ray and company had of taking the program’s first national title since 2007 were crushed in the most heartbreaking of ways, a sobering fact that hurt even more when considering the finality of the collegiate careers of Wilson and junior Patrick Rodgers.

The day began on a more positive note for Stanford, when it dispatched Illinois — the 2013 NCAA runners-up — in the morning quarterfinal 3-2. Ray sent Boote and freshman Viraat Badhwar out in the first two pairings, which the Cardinal split. Boote, who was 8-under over the last 36 stroke play holes, fell 1-down to the Illini’s Thomas Detry after being 1-up with two to play. Badhwar made his move versus Charlie Danielson — brother of Stanford women’s golfer Casey Danielson — on 16 to win the match 1-up.

Fellow freshman Maverick McNealy lost to Brian Campbell 3 and 2, while Rodgers won by the same margin against Jonathan Hauter. That left the two squads tied with one pairing remaining, which pitted the individual champion Wilson against Alex Burge. The duo stayed close and went back and forth throughout the round before Wilson went 1-up on 17 and coolly sank a par-putt on 18 to clinch the victory for the Card.

That putt moved Stanford into second of two afternoon semifinals against Oklahoma State, a team Stanford lost to in four of their five tournament meetings this season. Despite not having much tangible success against the Cowboys in the regular season, the Cardinal played their opponent remarkably well even through the first half of the five matches. McNealy led off against Talor Gooch, with the two trading blows and neither gaining more than a l-up advantage. McNealy’s par on 13 put him 1-up, a lead he enjoyed until Gooch birdied 16 and 17. But Gooch’s poor tee shot on 18 left the door ajar for McNealy, and he slipped through the crack with a par to extend the round. But Gooch slammed the gate shut a few holes later, hitting a lengthy birdie putt on the third extra hole, and McNealy’s miss sealed his fate.

At that point, Wilson had already defeated Ian Davis 4 and 2, taking advantage of several errant shots from the Cowboy down the stretch to give Stanford its first point. Likewise, Zachary Olsen had felled Boote by the time the McNealy-Gooch battle ended, and OSU had a 2-1 lead.

Stanford’s hopes now resided on the clubs of Badhwar and Rodgers, who were going in opposite directions by the middle of their back-nines. The latter was slowly but surely pulling away from Jordan Niebrugge, with birdies on 13 and 14 and pars on 15, 16 and 17 cementing his advantage. But Rodgers would never see 18, because up ahead, Badhwar was in serious trouble. All-square with Wyndham Clark after 10 holes, the New Delhi native lost the next three holes, then won the next two to put himself 1-down with three to play. After reaching the 18th green in two strokes, Clark and Badhwar both had chances at birdie. Clark missed first, and Badhwar’s follow-up just missed the left lip of the cup, ending Stanford’s late rally and its season.

And while losses are always multifactorial, the bottom line for the Card is that they were simply unable to get production from the whole of their lineup against Oklahoma State. True to form, Wilson and Rodgers did their part at the front, but Stanford’s team depth was its Achilles’ heel, despite valiant efforts from McNealy, Boote and Badhwar. The problem of the 3-4 hole followed Ray’s unit throughout the season but was often mitigated by the low rounds of its two frontrunners. This time, Wilson and Rodgers couldn’t save the team they helped build, and the Card’s seemingly magical run at a team title ended one step short at Prairie Dunes.

This disappointment will sting — perhaps more than Columbus in 2013. For the outgoing Wilson and Rodgers, this was their last chance to fully redeem a program that has had superbly talented players but also a recent knack for underperforming on the biggest stages. Those two held up their end of the bargain, but their wins versus the Cowboys went unreciprocated by their younger teammates. They were so close to gaining the ultimate opportunity, but it just wasn’t meant to be, and there’s nothing that can truly smooth that over.

Contact Cameron Miller at cmiller6@stanford.edu.

About Cameron Miller

Cameron Miller is a sports desk editor for The Stanford Daily's Vol. 245 and is the men's and women's golf writer. Cameron is also a Stanford student-athlete, competing on the cross country and track and field teams. He is originally from Bakersfield, California, but spends most of his time away from the Farm on the state's Central Coast. Contact him at cmiller6@stanford.edu.