Ringler: Buckle up for roller coaster ride at men’s NCAA Championship

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Since we last saw NCAA championship golf 24 months ago at the Blessings Golf Club in Arkansas, it’s been like standing in a very long line for the hottest new roller coaster at the theme park.

Fasten those seat belts and get settled in, as this year’s NCAA Division I Men’s Golf Championship at Grayhawk Golf Club could have the most twists and turns, ups and downs we may ever see.

Why? One could make a case for all 30 teams to make the 54-hole cut. From that point there might truly only be a couple teams that would be a big surprise to advance to match play.

Twenty-three teams in the field are in the Golfweek/Sagarin top 30. A few of the teams not in the top 30 have all had big moments this year, showing its very possible to have another big week to get them into the top eight after 72 holes.

East Tennessee State is coming off a regional victory, that checks the box. In April TCU topped Oklahoma State, Arizona State, Texas Tech and North Carolina to win the Thunderbird Collegiate here in the Desert. UAB had an undefeated fall season and then went 13-under in the final round of the Noblesville Regional to make it to Grayhawk. Momentum might be a 15th club in the bag for Oregon State, who led the Albuquerque Regional after two rounds.

Three mid-majors would be Cinderella stories this week, starting with Sam Houston State’s story of having to play with four players in the final round to make it out of the Stillwater Regional. Little Rock went 4 under on the final hole of regional play at the same site to advance. After beating the likes of New Mexico, Stanford and South Carolina, San Diego has the “why not us?” belief.

Golfweek/Sagarin Rankings: Men’s team | Men’s individual

When it comes to the golf course here at Grayhawk, it is a bit of an unknown. The conditions are near perfect, but will the par 70, 7,289 yard-layout play hard enough from tee-to-green to create separation?

If we don’t see that separation, it could be anybody’s week. The field is strong at the top with teams ranked Nos. 1-14 all here this week.

However, when previewing the championship, you really have to view it as two tournaments: which team wins stroke play and which team wins match play.

No team ranked worse than third has claimed stroke play victory since the championship moved to match play in 2009. So, that tells us the heavy favorites are Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Florida State. That fits this year with how those three teams have been playing. In 31 tournaments, the trio have finished outside the top three just seven times, with Oklahoma State doing so four times.

As for match play, totally different story. The No. 1 seed has won just one time and that was Oklahoma State in 2018, playing on its own Karsten Creek Golf Course when they were also the top-ranked team in college golf. Texas (2012) and Alabama (2014) did win match play as the No. 1 ranked team, but not No. 1 seed.

So, who wins match play? The average ranking of the team winner is 8.2. That of course is after the rankings are updated from stroke play, but will fall in line with the likes of Pepperdine, North Carolina, Clemson, Wake Forest, Illinois and Arizona State.

This week stamps championship No. 21 for me dating back to the 2001 finals when Nick Gilliam led Florida to the title at Duke University Golf Club. Since then the format has changed and the best team usually does not take home the trophy, but the table is set for a wild ride.

Hang on tight and expect anything.

Full field by the rankings

Oklahoma (1)

Oklahoma State (2)

Florida State (3)

Texas (4)

Pepperdine (5)

North Carolina (6)

Clemson (7)

Wake Forest (8)

Illinois (9)

Arizona State (10)

NC State (11)

Vanderbilt (12)

Texas Tech (13)

Georgia (14)

SMU (16)

Liberty (17)

Tennessee (18)

Florida (22)

Arkansas (23)

San Francisco (21)

San Diego State (25)

Georgia Tech (26)

Louisville (27)

TCU (32)

UAB (33)

East Tennessee State (34)

Oregon State (39)

Little Rock (49)

San Diego (54)

Sam Houston State (56)