ALLENDALE, Mich. — For Florida Southern’s Tim Crouch and Indiana (Pa.), the drama-filled third day of the 2014 NCAA Men’s Division II National Championship was all about heart-stopping waits.
After carding a 3-under par 68 in the final round of stroke play, all Crouch — the defending individual national champion — could do was wait in the clubhouse at The Meadows at Grand Valley State.
With an even-par 213 next to his name on the leaderboard, Crouch had done all he possibly could as No. 1 Barry’s Adam Svensson, the nation’s top-ranked golfer and Sunshine State Conference Player of the Year, came to the 18th green at 1-over par with a long, bender of a birdie putt to tie for the individual lead.
Crouch’s parents stood greenside as Svensson’s last hurrah slid past the left edge of the cup.
Moments after it seemed as though a second consecutive national title was all locked up, No. 6 Nova Southeastern’s Santiago Gomez thrust himself back into contention. The tournament’s 36-hole leader countered a three-hole, 4-over par stretch with a birdie at the 12th, eagle at the 601-yard par-5 14th and a birdie at the 455-yard par-4 15th.
Once Crouch got word of Gomez’s astonishing rally, which was even more miraculous since it occurred on the daunting back nine — only 55 birdies were made on it through the first two rounds — he headed back to the practice range.
Time could not go by fast enough.
Two hours after he turned in his scorecard, Gomez closed out his round with back-to-back bogeys and Crouch finally got to hoist the individual national championship trophy for a second consecutive year.
With his fifth career victory, he becomes only third Division II men’s golfer to win back-to-back crowns and just the fourth to win multiple titles. The last player to repeat as the national champion was Valdosta State’s Briny Baird, who won the 1994 and 1995 titles and has enjoyed a solid career on the PGA Tour. He brings Florida Southern its eighth individual championship and is the first Moc to win it twice.
“It was two hours of anxiously waiting,” Crouch said, noting his bogey-free back nine was probably the best stretch of golf he played this year. “You play every year just to win one of these, and I won two of them. It means a lot to me, my coach, my family and the program.”
Florida Southern head coach Doug Gordin could not say enough about Crouch’s grit, mental toughness and veteran savvy down the stretch.
“It was a gutsy round, because he missed five or six greens,” said Gordin. “He hung in there, chipped one in (on No. 8 after a bogey at No. 7). … that is experience. That’s why he won last year.
“That’s one of the best rounds I’ve ever seen him play in terms of how he handled himself.”
Svensson matched Crouch’s 3-under par 68 — the lowest 18-hole round of the tournament — to come in second place with a 54-hole score of 1-over par 214 for his ninth top-five finish of the season.
Gomez settled for third place at 2-over par (215). Nova Southeastern’s Ricardo Celia took fourth with a 3-over par 216. Alistair Docherty and Justin Wiles of No. 4 Chico State and Dillon Van Essen of No. 18 Saint Edward’s each tallied a 4-over par 217 to tie for fifth place.
In the team portion of the event, No. 5 Lynn, No. 8 Armstrong Atlantic, No. 11 Malone, No. 12 North Alabama and Indiana (Pa.) all battled to the very end to make the eight-team cut for Thursday’s match play quarterfinals.
As Lynn and Malone secured its spots, despite bleeding strokes during the final holes, No. 2 Cal State Monterey Bay came dangerously close to falling out of the top eight. The Otters managed to hang on, thanks in large part to Anton Rosen’s pars at the 17th and 18th, but Armstrong Atlantic stumbled on its final hole — the par-5 ninth — leaving North Alabama and Indiana (Pa.) tied at 44-over par.
Standing in the middle of the 9th fairway, Crimson Hawk senior Zack Kempa was informed by head coach Frederick Joseph a birdie would vault the team into match play.
“I was in between clubs and went with the longer one to give myself a putt,” said the Canadian native. “I couldn’t have hit it farther away for a two-putt.”
With all of his teammates gathered restlessly around the green, Kempa rolled his first putt to within five feet and carefully examined what he had left for birdie. After a little more than a minute of waiting, which likely felt like an eternity, the two-time All-American stood over the most important putt of his career and buried it right into the heart of the cup.
“I wouldn’t want any player in any of my years of coaching to have that determining putt other than Zack Kempa,” Coach Joseph said, now in his 22nd year at the helm of Indiana (Pa.).
Following a loud roar of victory on the green and the signing of his scorecard, all the Crimson Hawks hugged one another out of excitement as they rejoiced in front of the clubhouse. Indiana (Pa.) is the first Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference member to qualify for match play at the national championship.
“It is such a sweet little, hidden program we have,” he elaborated as his hand continued to shake over his heart. “We are ranked 45th and playing against the top 10 teams in the country. I knew we could compete, but to actually do it was very, very rewarding.”
Despite finishing in a tie for 11th place individually last season, solidifying the eighth seed for his team was the greatest moment of Kempa’s four-year career.
“It was nice the last couple of years to play very well, but that was an individual thing,” said Kempa. “After three years of not making the top eight, to be able to do that, especially my senior year…that means more than anything.”
Nova Southeastern posted a 3-under par 281 to total an 11-over par 863 over three days to run away with the top seed in match play. The Sharks will face Indiana (Pa.) in the quarterfinals.
“I think we are playing well. That was showcased over the last three days,” said head coach Ryan Jamison. “Ultimately, the tournament starts tomorrow for us. Our goal is to win every match, and hopefully, have a chance to win a national championship on Friday.”
Barry tallied a 4-under par 280 — the lowest score by any team this week — to take the second seed with a 25-over par 877. It will square off with Cal State Monterey Bay, which tied with the Crimson Hawks for seventh place at 43-over par (895).
Four strokes behind the Buccaneers was Chico State, which fired an 8-over par 292 on day three and a 29-over par 881 over 54 holes. The Wildcats are matched up with Lynn, the sixth-place finisher with a 41-over par 893.
Behind them in a tie for fourth place were Malone and No. 7 Central Missouri, both of whom finished with 38-over par 890s. The two teams will clash in Thursday’s quarterfinals, which will begin at 7:30 a.m. ET. The four winners will move on and play semifinal matches in the afternoon.
North Alabama missed qualifying for match play by one stroke and took ninth place with a 44-over par 896.
Additionally, after only 17 players managed to shoot par or better in the tournament’s first two rounds, 12 golfers broke par and another eight carded even-par 71s on Wednesday.
Sometimes par is good enough to win. It was all Crouch needed after three grueling days of stroke play. But for the Indiana (Pa.) Crimson Hawks, nothing less than a birdie would get the job done in Allendale, Michigan.