The tension in the dry, Arizona heat was growing as sophomore Hiroshi Tai lined up a 20 footer to win his match against Pepperdine’s Roberto Nieves and send the Jackets into the NCAA match play semifinals. The previous matches had already concluded and the Jackets were all square with the Waves 2-2. After finishing even on the first 18, Tai and Nieves battled it out on the 10th hole with a semifinals berth at stake. Tai’s putt, a downhill double breaker, was probably not the putt Tai wanted to win the match, but he had an advantage having seen Nieves putt on a similar line. Tai rolled it beautifully, and it turned back right at the end and rattled into the back of the hole with pace. The Jackets were heading to the semifinals.
For the past two years, Grayhawk Golf Club in Scottsdale, AZ hosted the NCAA Golf Championship. Grayhawk is played over 7200 yards at a par 70. Known for embracing the desert surrounding the property, Grayhawk is a challenge all-around because of its firm and fast fairways and rock-hard undulating greens.
Tech entered the NCAA tournament on a hot streak, ranked 11th in the nation and coming off victories at their previous two tournaments, the ACC Championship and the NCAA Salem Regional. The NCAA tournament is divided into two sections: a four day stroke play event that crowns an individual champion, followed by a cut with only the top eight teams advancing to a match play session.
The first round of stroke play could not have gone any better for the Jackets. Head Coach Bruce Heppler sent out the same five golfers who were featured prominently this season: junior Christo Lamprecht, senior Ross Steelman, senior Connor Howe, freshman Hiroshi Tai and senior Bartley Forrester. This strong Jackets lineup posted a round of 280 (E), shooting them to the top of the leaderboard with Steelman securing a bogey-free tournament low round of 64. Both Steelman and the Jackets got off to a commanding start.
In rounds two and three, the Jackets found themselves falling a couple of spots on the leaderboard. Steelman continued his dominance, shooting under par in both rounds, and a 66 from Connor Howe on day three led to a third round 276 (-4) that put them in 5th place going into the last day. Once again, needing a top-eight finish to guarantee a spot in match play, the Jackets were 11 strokes clear of the cut. After the third round, Steelman still lay atop of the leaderboard by four shots, proceeding North Carolina’s Dylan Menante and Ohio State’s Neal Shipley.
In the final round, two things were on the line: a spot in match play along with hopes of an individual title for Steelman. The Jackets were slow out of the gate but recovered quickly with the help of three birdies in five holes for Lamprecht. Tech made the turn needing a solid back nine to secure a spot in match play. For Steelman, he played the first nine in 36 (+1) and was still in the lead after the turn. Lamprecht continued his stellar play on the front onto the back, shooting a back nine 32 and posting a 66 (-4) to lead the team into match play.
The Jackets finished as the 5th seed and secured a match with Pepperdine University the next morning. Unfortunately for Steelman, he bogeyed the last three holes en route to finishing one shot behind Florida’s Fred Biondi. Steelman caught unlucky breaks along the way, including his tee shot on the 17th landing in a divot in the fairway. Even though Steelman couldn’t capitalize on his great first three rounds, he was quick to congratulate Biondi post round and his runner-up finish earned him enough points to finish fourth in the PGA TOUR University Rankings which earned him full status on the Korn Ferry Tour for the summer and an exemption into the final stage of PGA TOUR Q-School.
The Jackets matchup against the Waves was never going to be an easy one, as Pepperdine won the national championship two years prior and their team was full of experienced players. Pepperdine jumped out to a quick start with early wins from Sam Choi and Derek Hitchner, but three matches loomed and Tech led in two of them. Steelman won in dominating fashion over talented senior William Mouw 5&4 and Forrester finished off Luke Gifford 2&1 just shortly later. The Jackets’ life in the national championship was held in the hands of Tai who headed to extra holes against Nieves. He drained his birdie putt and punched their ticket to the semifinals where the University of North Carolina waited.
UNC, ranked inside the top three nationally for the majority of the year, finished first overall as a team during stroke play and had beaten Arizona State handily in the morning session. The first match was a disastrous start for the Jackets. Lamprecht, who had been the Jackets best player throughout much of the season, was dominated 6&5 by Menante. In the next match, Forrester dominated Ryan Burnett and won 4&2 and put the first point on the board for the Jackets.
Following in Forrester’s footsteps, Howe also claimed a 4&2 victory over his opponent Austin Greaser, closing with birdies on both holes 15 and 16. Even with Howe’s point, the Jackets would need one more for a chance to play for a national title. Sophomore David Ford for the Tar Heels closed out Tai with a par on hole 18 and the national championship berth was down to one match. Good thing for the Jackets, their fate lay in the hands of Steelman, the star of the stroke play portion. Steelman was one over UNC’s Peter Fountain with four holes to go.
Steelman made a clutch par on 16 to halve the hole and matched Fountain’s birdie with a birdie on his own on the short par four 17th. On the 18th tee, Steelman crushed a drive down the fairway while Fountain found himself in a precarious spot off the tee. After hitting it to around 30 feet, Steelman lagged his putt incredibly close to the hole and Fountain conceded the match, which gave the Jackets the clinching point they needed. At about the same time on hole number ten Florida’s Ricky Castillo drained a putt that clinched the Gators win over in-state rival Florida State.
The Jackets advanced to the National Championship match for the first time since the NCAA restructured the team competition to the combined stroke and match play format. Before the match play format, Tech finished runner-up four times but had never brought home the championship. The Jackets would face off in the afternoon against the Gators, making the wind more of a factor compared to the other rounds. Par would be a good score throughout the whole afternoon. In the first match, the Jackets sent Lamprecht to square off against Florida’s Yuxin Lin. Both players had struggled in their semifinals match but Heppler hoped a different Lamprecht would show up.
Heppler’s wish was not answered as Lamprecht’s errant drives cost him strokes early on the front nine and even with the putter bailing him out, he turned four down to Lin. It would be tough for Lamprecht to turn it around and give the Jackets the momentum they needed; however, Lamprecht made pars on holes 10 and 13 to shrink Lin’s lead to two, but Lin ultimately won the next two holes giving him a 4&3 victory over Lamprecht.
While Lamprecht was struggling in the top spot, the other four matches were going back and forth behind him. The Jackets needed three wins from the remaining four golfers in order to knock off the Gators. In the second match, Forrester had control over Florida’s Matthew Kreiss for a good portion of the match. After a short miss from Forrester on the 17th green, Kreiss made a terrific birdie on the 18th, arguably the most difficult hole, which sent the match to extra holes. On the first extra hole, Forrester and Kreiss both made solid pars, but on the following hole, Kreiss found trouble and made double giving Forrester the opening he needed to put the first point on the board for the Jackets.
In the third match, while Forrester was grinding out extra holes, Howe was battling John Dubois in an extremely close contest. For the majority of the match, the largest lead either of them held was two up, a rarity for collegiate match play. After 17, Howe was tied with Dubois but bogeyed the 18th giving Dubois the win and forcing the Jackets to win the last two matches.
The difficulty for the Jackets was that Florida Head Coach J.C. Deacon had strategically placed his two most experienced golfers Biondi and Castillo in the four and five slots. Biondi, the individual title winner, had control of Tai for most of the back nine. Even though Tai made the turn one up, Biondi flipped the momentum and put himself in the driver seat.
On the drivable 17th, Biondi made a fantastic birdie to give him a one up lead going into the difficult 18th. Biondi figured par would win the national championship and that is exactly how it played out. Biondi lagged his birdie putt up to a couple of feet and Tai, already laying four, decided to properly concede the match and the team title.
While the Jackets could not take home the first place hardware in Scottsdale, the team still finished off an incredible campaign. The season was full of amazing moments highlighted by wins at the ACC Championship and NCAA Salem Regional Championship as well as individual titles from Tai and Lamprecht.
The Jackets will lose seniors Steelman and Howe to pro golf. Steelman will play in the Korn Ferry for the remainder of its season because of his top five PGA TOUR U ranking and Howe will be playing on PGA TOUR Canada. It will be interesting to see how Heppler handles the team next year. Sophomore Benjamin Reuter will most likely see a larger role next year as well as freshman Aidan Tran.
Heppler may also decide to explore options in the transfer portal to try and fill gaps in the squad. Steelman, one of the Jackets’ stars for the year, was actually a transfer from the University of Missouri. Apart from the Jackets who are turning pro, all the others will be playing in high level amateur tournaments throughout the Summer including the events in the Elite Amateur golf Series as well as the U.S. Amateur.