Dance all night: Texas sends off special seniors with NCAA title
As he sat in a director’s chair on a sunny-but-windy afternoon at the University of Texas Golf Club back in late March, Texas head coach John Fields made a prediction of sorts for his talented and experienced group, one led by departing seniors Cole Hammer, Pierceson Coody and Parker Coody.
It wasn’t quite Ben Crenshaw at Brookline, but Fields, nonetheless, had a good feeling about these Longhorns.
“I’ve got a team that’s supercharged right now,” Fields told the lone Golf Channel camera, which was filming a television feature, “and when we get there [to the NCAA Championship], they will pay attention to business.”
There were close calls. Hammer and the Coodys fell in the national final to Stanford as freshmen.
There were cancellations. The COVID-19 pandemic canceled the 2020 postseason with the Longhorns trending.
There were illnesses. Pierceson battled two different viruses last season, the latter forcing him to withdraw from the NCAA Championship, where an exhausted Texas team missed the 54-hole cut.
There were injuries. The most bizarre were the Coody twins each fracturing their right arms last December after crashing into a wall during a post-workout relay race.
“So many mountains that we had to climb,” Fields says.
But redemption makes such journeys rewarding, and on Wednesday at Grayhawk Golf Club in Scottsdale, Arizona, the Longhorns didn’t just pay attention to business, they took care of business.
In storybook fashion, Texas reached the mountaintop by defeating Arizona State, 3-2, in the NCAA final to send its three seniors, dubbed the “Three Amigos,” out on the highest of notes.
“They were freed up,” Fields said. “They played some of the best and most outstanding golf that I’ve seen out of them, and I think that’s simply because the pressure really was off. We got to the place that we wanted to get, and that gave them the opportunity to play golf and just be who they were.”
Which were champions. Boosted by a 4-under performance to cap stroke play, the best final round by seven shots and what Fields called “the best round he’s ever coached,” the Longhorns grabbed not only the fourth seed for match play, but more importantly, they seized momentum.
Texas proceeded to knock off the Nos. 2 and 3 teams in the country, Big 12 rival Oklahoma State and red-hot Vanderbilt, to punch its ticket to the championship match, opposite an Arizona State squad ranked fourth in Golfstat and possessing the luxury of playing in front of the home crowd.
In the past six championships, two teams had won national titles at home – Oregon in 2016 and Oklahoma State in 2018 – so despite fate seemingly on the side of the Longhorns, the Sun Devils would probably have been the slight betting favorites to begin the day.
A true toss-up played out as such over the course of five hours. Hammer, undefeated through two matches, met a buzzsaw in fifth-year senior Mason Andersen, who led the leadoff match 4 up after seven holes before winning, 3 and 2. Parker Coody made easy work of senior James Leow in the second match, 6 and 5, and Pierceson Coody denied decorated freshman Preston Summerhays his third big scalp of the week, 2 and 1.
Fields, who has coached a bevy of superstars, including Masters champions Jordan Spieth and Scottie Scheffler, knows how much his seniors have impacted his program.
“We’re really going to miss them because they’re three of the best players who have ever played at Texas,” Fields said, “and that’s saying a lot.”
Added Hammer: “Golly, I just don’t know what I’d do without [this team]. They’ve been such a huge part of my life.”
But to win the school’s fourth NCAA title – and first since 2012 – the Big 3 had to become the Fab 5. Junior Travis Vick and Mason Nome, former AJGA standouts in their own rights, played pivotal roles all season, and especially at Grayhawk. Nome put the clinching point on the board in the quarterfinals before taking Arizona State junior David Puig to extra holes. Puig had garnered some negative attention on Tuesday evening when it was announced that he would participate in the inaugural LIV Golf event in London, and Sun Devils head coach told reporters Wednesday morning that he had instructed Puig to turn off his phone before the final match.
With Puig in position to secure the second point for Arizona State on the 10th green, across the lake on the 18th green was Vick and senior Cameron Sisk. Vick had won the first three holes, but Sisk, helped by a favorable crowd that Vick said was heckling him and “clapping for bad shots” the entire day, clawed back to 1 down with three holes to play. However, Sisk missed a birdie putt at the drivable par-4 17th hole that would’ve tied the match and then put his approach at the par-4 closing hole in the left greenside bunker. Once his sand splash didn’t find the hole, Vick, 30 feet away, needed only two putts to seal the deal.
He cozied one to within a foot, look at Sisk and then took off sprinting. With one finger pointed to the sky, his trademark bucket hat and shades came flying off as Vick soon met his teammates just off the front of the green. The scene was briefly reminiscent of a mosh pit at a metal concert.
“This year, to go through all of the adversity and to end up here and watch everyone play like this,” Pierceson Coody said afterward, “it means the world and is something I’ll never forget.”
Standing to Pierceson’s immediate left was Sonny Sciantarelli, a 14-year-old who rooted on the Longhorns from the sidelines all week. Sciantarelli is battling Stage 4 lymphoma, and he developed a relationship with Pierceson and the Longhorns earlier this spring.
While not on the roster, Fields and his players contend that Sciantarelli, in just a short time, was an integral part to this year’s squad. The players even wore bracelets with the hashtag #SonnyStrong on them this week.
“When we met Sonny and heard the story, the team never looked back,” Pierceson Coody said. “It’s felt like he’s been part of the team, and he’s been our biggest inspiration. For him to be healthy and come out here and watch us meant the world, and we’re just happy that we pulled it off for him.”
Added Fields: “I think the good Lord sent us an angel to be honest with you.”
Fields then turned to Sciantarelli, who had just broken down in tears when asked on air what the Texas team had meant to him, and said, “Sonny, God bless you. If we could give you this trophy and that helps you, we’re going to do it.”
Faith has been a driving force in Fields’ life. Ten years ago, in a contract year and feeling the pressure, Fields stuck to a mantra repeated to him by his wife, Pearl: Let go and let God. Fields prayed many times that season as his Longhorns, led by Spieth and Dylan Frittelli, orchestrated a miraculous – and likely career-saving – season capped by a national-championship victory over Alabama at Riviera.
Fast forward a decade, and Fields, as he sat in that director’s chair, let go once again.
“I’m praying,” Fields said later in that March sit-down, “that we have the type of end of this season that will allow those guys to kind of ride on off and really be proud of what they did.”
That prayer was answered Wednesday.
The eyes of Texas were upon Fields’ tested team during its proverbial last dance, and when Gabriel blew his horn after six days in the Arizona desert, the Longhorns were national champions at last.
“This will live with these guys forever,” Fields said. “I’m particularly proud of each and every one of these guys. They’re all special. We’re going to miss the Three Amigos, but we’ll see them in the fall for the Alabama game, they’ll have their horns up and we’ll be celebrating this.”