Rebirth at Riv: 2012 NCAAs, an oral history (Part I) – ‘Everything’s going to be all right’
It’s been a decade since the greatest national championship ever played. Hollywood venue. A-list players. Oscar-worthy moments. And a final that still gets two thumbs way up – and not just from the Texas Longhorns, who lifted the trophy that week.
This is the story of the 2012 NCAA Division I Men’s Golf Championship at Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles, as told by those who had front-row seats.
Here is Part I of III:
I. PRELUDE: ‘IT WAS KILLING ME’
Even to this day, John Fields gets fired up thinking about it. The longtime Texas head coach, after years of underperforming Longhorn teams, was in a contract year.
On the heels of his arrival from New Mexico in 1998, Fields led Texas to a trio of Big 12 titles and a few top-5 showings at the NCAA Championship over the next seven seasons. But that rise had long become stagnant. In the eight years after that third straight conference crown in 2004, the Longhorns regressed, never cracking the top 10 at nationals. An extremely painful period, Fields admits now, as unhappy alumni and donors lined up in displeasure for where the program was headed.
During that time, Fields had overseen the build of the University of Texas Golf Club, northwest of campus, and the team’s $1.2 million academy and practice facility. Truth be known, Fields had gotten distracted, more concerned with where a bunker was going or the shape of a green than fortifying his roster.
“They say the greatest detriment to success is a divided mind,” Fields said. “But I knew we had to have the golf course if we were going to go forward, if we were really going to be a relevant program into the future. So, I was willing to bet my future on helping build that. People can say what they want, but I was right in the middle of that from the get-go. … I knew that we had to have that golf course, we had to have our academy, we had to have the practice facility, and it almost cost me my career.
“I tell people, I didn’t sell my soul, but almost.”
Fields may have had arguably the top team in the country, led by senior Dylan Frittelli and much ballyhooed freshman Jordan Spieth, entering the 2012 NCAA Norman Regional. But the way Fields saw things, he was very much on the hot seat – and it was palpable.
Fresh off yet another shortcoming at Big 12s, where Frittelli went 5 over in his final three holes to cost himself and the Longhorns the hardware at Whispering Pines, the pressure was swelling. And Fields, just as he had done for nearly a decade, internalized it. Toward the end of the spring, he’d walk around UT Golf Club wearing a Hawaiian button-down shirt and sandals; anything to relieve some of the stress, or as his wife, Pearl, preached, “Let go and let God.”
“I ended up being 275 pounds,” Fields said. “You could tell that it was mounting on me. Literally. It was killing me.”
A poor showing at regionals would seemingly be the final nail in the coffin, both for Texas’ season and Fields’ career in Austin. And making matters more stressful, Pearl had to rush Fields’ assistant, Ryan Murphy, to the airport in Oklahoma City following the team’s practice round because Murphy’s wife, Terry, had gone into labor with their first child. Fields was forced to scramble, calling his volunteer coach, Jean-Paul Hebert, who at the time doubled as the senior assistant golf professional at UT Golf Club and had stayed back in Austin for the club’s member-guest.
Hebert quickly hopped in his Jeep and was sleeping in the parking lot at Jimmie Austin Golf Club the next morning when the team arrived for their opening round. As Murphy held his newborn son, Aiden, and monitored scores from an Austin hospital room, Spieth fired the course record that day, a 6-under 66, and Texas shared the early lead.
That’s when, prior to the second round, Texas’ deputy director of athletics, Butch Worley, came to Fields and delivered the news Fields had been longing to hear: The school had decided to renew Fields’ contract.
Texas went on to finish runner-up and punch its NCAA Championship ticket to Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles.
“That was a pretty big relief going into the national championship, that I knew they were going to renew my contract,” Fields said. “But then again, I still hadn’t signed anything. I just had their word.”
Added Murphy: “We both felt that way. That pressure was there, and it was real. He had not signed that contract yet. I’m not going to say Coach Fields was going to lose his job if we don’t win [the national championship], but it really felt that way.”
And so, the Longhorns set off for Tinseltown, carrying with them a substantial weight into what would surely be a battle of college-golf heavyweights.
II. WELCOME TO HOLLYWOOD: ‘SCOTT, YOU NAILED IT’
As the best 30 teams in the country converged on iconic Riviera, the stage was set for a blockbuster. Texas and Alabama were on collision courses, the Nos. 1 and 2 teams in the country and winners of seven and five tournaments, respectively. Cal had just captured Pac-12 and regional titles, and the Bears were flush with talent. So, too, was Oregon, and UCLA, and Washington. The field was littered with future PGA Tour players – Spieth, Frittelli, Alabama’s Justin Thomas, UCLA’s Patrick Cantlay, Florida State teammates Brooks Koepka and Daniel Berger, Stanford’s Patrick Rodgers, and nearly three dozen others.
In the shadows of the Hollywood sign, coaches and players were treated like movie stars – the opportunity to compete on a venerable layout, put up in the beachside Loews Hotel in Santa Monica, rubbing elbows with celebrities (Texas was invited over one evening to actor Rex Linn’s pad).
In fact, Carl Spackler himself kicked off the week’s festivities at the players’ dinner two nights before the opening round of stroke play.
Hebert: “Hands down, best tournament guest speaker of all-time. Scott Simpson was the first speaker, and he got up and kind of rambled for five minutes, and I don’t think any kid in there knew who he was or cared. So, he goes, ‘Well, I brought a friend of mine tonight. Hopefully, he can say a few words.’”
J.J. Spaun, San Diego State senior: “I was like, ‘Holy crap, it’s Bill Murray!’”
Herb Page, Kent State head coach: “I had been to a lot of these, and some of these are so dry. But I remember – and there was no mention about it – you go in with your team uniforms on, it wasn’t shirt and tie, and there’s the head table, and there’s Bill Murray. He had on a khaki suit, shirt and tie. I can see it today. Did not look the Bill Murray part.”
Trey Jones, Florida State head coach: “I didn’t know he was speaking until he was in the line for food standing next to us. I thought, Wow, this is going to be better than I thought.”
Hebert: “So, Bill Murray slowly walks up there, totally expressionless, gets up to the podium and he sticks his neck out to the mic, and he goes, ‘Great job, Scott (long pause). You nailed it.’ Everybody started chuckling a little bit, and he just went back and sat down. Then he gets back up, comes back over to the mic and says, ‘Everybody in the room who is wearing a horizontal-striped shirt stand up.’ Maybe one or two guys from each table stand up. He then goes, ‘Those are shirts my friend Scott hasn’t been able to wear in 30 years.’ Just starts ripping on him.”
Murphy: “He had the room laughing throughout, and then he had a pretty good message about being thankful. He told everyone how to properly say thank you to people who have influenced their lives. … You don’t passively say it. You have to actually communicate what it means to you and give people examples of how they’ve helped you in your life to get you to where you are.”
Max Homa, Cal junior: “I think we were expecting ‘Caddyshack,’ and he gave us kind of a life lesson as well. It was not your typical players’ dinner.”
Page: “We wish he had spoken all night. He had everybody howling, laughing, and he was so relaxed telling stories. That was the greatest part of the week.”
Jones: “It’s going to be hard to top that one.”
The following night, one of the tournament favorites nearly derailed its title hopes before a single shot was struck. Cal head coach Steve Desimone had taken his squad out for some Italian, a team tradition, and his players had talked the legendary coach into staying for dessert.
Desimone: “That is the last time in my life that I’ve broken into a full sprint. We’re probably parked a third of a mile from the restaurant. So, we finish dessert and we’re walking to the van, and Max goes, ‘Coach, it looks like the van’s about to be towed.’ And I looked, and this guy has everything on the van and I’m like, ‘Holy…,’ so I’m sprinting down the hill and the kids are in absolute hysterics, laughing. I get down there, and it’s a young guy and he was getting in his truck, and I got him to come out and told him what was going on. And he goes, ‘Look, I’ve already done all this,’ and he’s supposed to take this thing down to some lot. And I said, ‘Please, please, be reasonable.’ I was on my hands and knees. So, he goes, ‘All right, the fine’s $169.’ I said, ‘I’ll pay it right here, right now. And if your boss has any issues, here’s my card, tell him to call me.’ I think the guy just took the money, I don’t know. Anyway, he let the van back down. I still get crap from my guys, and rightfully so. We were lucky, though. If it had been 60 seconds later, we would’ve been in tough shape. It would’ve been disaster. Everything was in that van. There was a little divine intervention on that one.”
For Texas, its pre-championship divination came not from above but rather its program’s past. The morning of the team’s Saturday afternoon flight to Los Angeles, Fields surprised his players with a visit and motivational speech from a Longhorn legend.
Fields: “I had asked Ben Crenshaw’s agent, Scotty Sayers, if Ben could come out and talk to the guys. And Ben said, ‘Sure, I’d love to come talk to your team. I’ve been following you guys all year.’ So, we’re out there on the range [at UT Golf Club], the guys are hitting golf balls, and, as I recall, I had not told them he was going to do that. And Ben came down the path wearing a golf shirt, shorts and flip-flops, and he just walked right on up, and by then everybody knew who it was.”
Spieth: “It was not uncommon for him to meet or talk to us, or we go have dinner at his house. ... For him to host guys on the team and be such a supporter – he obviously won national championships there, but he doesn’t have to go do that kind of stuff, and yet he does, and it’s such a benefit.”
Fields: “Anyway, he talked with the guys, shared some information about Riviera, and right at the very end, he looked at all of them and said, ‘I have a really good feeling about this week for you guys.’”
III. STROKE PLAY BEGINS: ‘LET ‘EM RUN’
Though Texas was the championship’s top seed – and, as Frittelli put it, “undervalued” because Spieth had missed three tournaments for either a PGA Tour start (he made two, including earlier that year at Riviera, where he shot 76-71) or the Walker Cup – it was by fractions over Alabama. The Crimson Tide, like their counterparts to the west, were loaded.
Thomas was the favorite for national player of the year and freshman of the year, albeit narrowly over Spieth. Bobby Wyatt and fellow sophomore Cory Whitsett would be second-team All-Americans that season. The Tide were so good that two future Tour players, Trey Mullinax and Tom Lovelady, did not make the postseason lineup.
However, Alabama went winless in the fall, losing twice to Texas by a combined 53 shots, and its head coach, Jay Seawell, was searching for the right button to push before the spring opener in Puerto Rico.
Wyatt: “Coach Seawell seems to have that innate ability of finding what his teams need, and we were a very talented team, and we were just playing tight in the fall.”
Seawell: “I’m a visual learner and teacher, and so I pulled up a part in the movie, “Secretariat,” at the very end where he’s going for the Triple Crown and there’s tension, and we go over all of it. I said, ‘Look at the pressure. The lady, the owner, she has the whole farm on the line. Look at their faces, look how they’ve done it.’ And literally, when Secretariat breaks out of it, she just goes, ‘Let him run, Ronnie! Let him run!’ And she kind of throws her arms up and opens up her hands, and I said, ‘If we do this, this is who we can be. There’s Texas, this is us, this is who we’re going to be if we just run’ – and I did say Texas because they were clearly the best team in the country at the time.”
Scott Limbaugh, Alabama assistant coach: “So, that became the mantra with our team. Let ‘em run! Like quit letting other things hold you back. Don’t let the coaches hold you back, don’t let a mentality hold you back, just go play.”
Whitsett: “To prove his point [Seawell] coached all of Puerto Rico wearing flip-flops. Guys, I’m sitting in the cart and letting you guys do it; that was the thought. It was so funny. Every time he pulled up, he’s wearing his Alabama golf stuff and rainbow flip-flops.”
Thomas: “It was a funny mantra, but it was just our thing. Sometimes less is more ... and it just resonated with us, and more importantly, as a coach, he did a great job of not overcoaching. He understood, he looked at our team, and was like, I have a bunch of really good players here, I just need to let them go. And yeah, we had a helluva team. We definitely ran.”
The Tide shot 30 under in Puerto Rico and beat the rival Longhorns by 33 shots that week. After a setback in Las Vegas, where Alabama tied for ninth, long-hitting junior Scott Strohmeyer was inserted into the lineup in place of Mullinax, and the team responded again, winning four of its next five events, including SEC and regional titles.
The strong spring was enough to earn Alabama first- and second-round tee times at Riviera alongside Texas and Cal in a grouping of the championship’s top three seeds. Spieth, Thomas and Cal junior Brandon Hagy made up a featured threesome. The opening round was contested on a Tuesday, and the three favorites led off their tournaments in the afternoon wave on Riviera’s famed par-4 10th hole.
The Tide parlayed a strong start – five birdies and an eagle in the first three holes – into a 1-over 285 and three-shot lead over Florida and Auburn after 18 holes.
Hunter Hamrick, Alabama senior, who opened in 2-over 73, tied with Whitsett for the throw-away score but just three strokes higher than Thomas’ team-best 70: “The confidence was high. We knew Texas was good and Cal had a bunch of good players, but we thought if we played our game, we were the best team in the country and could beat anybody.”
Seawell, whose team combined for 17 birdies and an eagle in Round 1: “The first round tends to always be the most nervous. You feel like you have to get off to a good start, and after getting off to a good start and taking the overnight lead, I felt good, I felt comfortable. I just could see the look in the guys’ eyes.”
Spieth, who missed a 5-footer on the par-4 ninth to post 73 for Texas, which shot 6 over as a team and was tied for sixth after one round: “We just wanted to get off to a good start, just try and stay consistent through stroke play.”
Desimone, whose Bears were T-15 and 11 over despite a 71 and two chip-ins from Hagy: “At dinner that night, I was feeling confident. What really came into play for me was the NCAA regional in 2004, the year we won the national title. We had played poorly in the first round that day and were in 21st out of 27 teams, and I was asked by my assistants if I was going to get on the kids, if I was going to read them the riot act. And I told them my original instinct was to do that, but I said, ‘This is a team capable of winning the national championship. They need hugs, positive thoughts. They don’t need me to take them apart.’ The wind was blowing 25-30 mph that next day at Sunriver, and nobody broke par except us. We were 11 under. … So, that was in back of my mind after the first round [at Riviera]. This was a team that had won six times and was so clutch in the Pac-12 when we came from behind and Hagy made a 40-foot putt on 18 that put us in a playoff, which we went on to win. There’s a time to get after kids, and there’s a time not to, and as it turned out, it was a good move on my part to give them hugs.”
Derek Freeman, UCLA head coach, whose team sat tied for fourth with Oklahoma behind sophomore Anton Arboleda’s first round-leading 67: “I walked that back nine with Anton, and he was one of those players who hit it really solid and straight, and he just felt peace that day. He picked the right clubs and put the ball in the right spots. He made five birdies on the back nine. That really set a tone for the week for our guys.”
Thomas Pieters, Illinois sophomore, who was two shots back after an opening 69: “Leading up to nationals, I had tied for fifth at Big Tens, finished second at regionals. I was playing good golf at the time. But that first round, I almost signed for the wrong score because I was convinced that the first hole was a par-4. They were like, ‘You made birdie on 1,’ and I’m like, ‘No, no, no, I made par.’ Because it was that short and that easy and no one had told me.”
IV. SECOND ROUND: ‘A MENTAL MESS’
Spieth was special. Everyone knew that. Earlier that season, in the Longhorns’ fall finale at Isleworth, he shot 11 under and won by eight shots over Frittelli as Texas capped its fall with three straight wins. But the ‘Golden Child’ wasn’t immune to poor play. In the second round of regionals, Spieth ballooned with a 77, his second round of 75 or worse in his past two events. He was struggling with his swing – per a Golfweek article, he was making only three-quarter swings and “bunting” the ball down the fairway.
Spieth, as quoted at the time: “It’s in my swing. I’m across the line and too long, and I’ve been trying to fix it and haven’t been able to.”
Fields: “After that second round, I saw Jordan start looking at the hole [while putting] in practice. He didn’t do that during the tournament, but in practice he was. That’s actually the first time I ever saw him do that.”
Murphy, who was still at the hospital: “Coach Fields calls me and is like, ‘Hey, you’re gonna need to come back up here.’ I thought he was joking. I’m like, ‘C’mon, Coach, I just had my baby.’ He’s like, ‘No, you gotta get back up here because Jordan wants you to walk with him tomorrow.’ I can’t even get on a flight, so I have to drive up there. I left at 2 a.m. and got there at 8 and walked 18 holes with Jordan, and he played a solid round and we got through.”
But Spieth’s issues persisted. After his closing 74 at regionals and opening 73 at Riviera, he was cruising, having just played the front nine of his second round in 1 under following birdies on two of his first three holes, when disaster struck.
Frittelli: “No. 10 was one of our main focuses. We wanted to figure out that hole because it’s such a conundrum. We talked to Tour pros and the consensus we got from our research was just lay up. If everybody lays up every day, you’re going to avoid catastrophe, you’re going to avoid big numbers, and if you play the whole even par throughout the week as a team, you’re going to save shots on the field, and that’s what we did (Texas shot 4 under on No. 10 in stroke play) … besides Spieth’s second round.”
Seawell: “Jordan laid up and had like 77 yards, literally hit it right at it, but hit it into the lip, missed his mark by a yard and was in that front bunker.”
Fields, who witnessed Spieth take four bunker shots on the hole: “It was really hard to watch. He got in that bunker on 10 and left it in there, and then he hit it to the other one on the other side, and then hit it back in the front bunker.”
Murphy: “He played ping-pong for a little bit.”
Seawell: “It was a mess. He actually made a good ‘7’ after a while. I didn’t think he was ever going to get it on the green.”
Fields: “And then he hits it in the front bunker in two on the next hole and walks out of there with ‘7’. He was just really flustered at that moment.”
Frittelli: “A bit of a mental explosion. … He was playing with JT, so there was a lot of pressure on that. Everyone was building it up: top two players are playing with each other, let’s see who can win this tournament or finish the best for player of the year. Obviously, Spieth is thinking he’s turning pro, so this is his only chance he has at winning an NCAA individual title.”
Spieth, who played Nos. 10 and 11 in triple-double: “Shots that I expect to birdie more than 50% of the time, instead of playing them 3-4, I played them 7-7. I wasn’t playing smart. Both of them were bad wedge swings, but after I hit the shots, I should’ve played them bogey-bogey, at worst. … Unacceptable and out of the ordinary.”
Seawell: “Remember he’s just a freshman also. He wasn’t the major-championship winner at the time, so he became a mental mess.”
Hebert: “He got to 12 tee box, and I remember him taking a knee and scratching his head like, What in the heck just happened?”
Spieth went on to card 79 while Texas, which earlier in the round had seen sophomore Toni Hakula – a day after carding 80 – ace the par-3 sixth from 166 yards with 7-iron, backed up to T-13, a shot out of T-8, with an 11-over 295.
Spieth: “I single-handedly brought the team down. I shot 9 over on the back nine and brought our team outside of the top 8. We were actually in about 20th place when we finished, I think, and we looked at the boards going, Oh, shoot, we’re going to need to get our acts together. I felt terrible.”
Cody Gribble, Texas senior, who also shot 79 in Round 2: “No one really knows what to say. It’s just everybody kind of shaking their heads like, This could put us out of the tournament.”
Murphy: “We struggled that day because we had to count a high score, but I walked with Frittelli that tournament. He’s playing just a very average round, 4 over, and then he birdies 17, making like a 30-footer.”
Frittelli: “I was just trying to hold it together, not doing anything too crazy, don’t get outside the box.”
Fields: “And then Cody Gribble got into a situation where they had slow play, and you know the walk from 18 green, up the stairs, all the way to the clubhouse. I went up there with Cody to kind of plead the case. I didn’t want him to get a two-shot penalty.”
Gribble: “I was so mad shooting 79 that I didn’t care if they gave me two strokes or 10 strokes. But Coach Fields, that’s the kind of guy he was, he’d take a bullet for any of his players, and he still will.”
Fields: “They ended up not giving him a penalty, but when I walked out, I was at the top of the stairs, and I saw Dylan standing in the 18th fairway (182 yards out). I then closed my eyes, and to be honest with you, I was going, God, if there’s any way that he could make this shot, that would be so helpful for us going into the next day. I’m sitting there praying basically, and the ball goes in the hole.”
Murphy: “He hoops an 8-iron on the last hole to shoot 72. And although we had a bad round, that jolted our team. It put a band-aid on that day.”
Gribble: “It turned the tables around and revamped us.”
Fields, who spent the next 20 minutes laughing in amazement: “An unbelievable moment, that ball hit right in front of the hole and just took one hop and went right in. As an experienced coach, I’d had some incredible things happen over the years, you know, when you feel like you have something happen that’s a little bit of an omen, that tells you everything’s going to be all right. And that shot at that moment told me everything was going to be all right. It brought a calm over me, and that night we had a great meeting and I told them, ‘We have been in tough circumstances before, and we have the type of team that can have a great round tomorrow. Let’s go out there tomorrow and just be who we are.’”
Murphy: “And I knew that Jordan Spieth wasn’t going to have two bad days in a row.”
Elsewhere, Pieters was a shot better than his previous day, as he fired a 68 to take a two-shot lead over Arboleda and Florida’s Tyler McCumber. Washington had the round of the day, a 2-over 286. And in Texas’ group, Cal, like Desimone had anticipated, got off to a hot start – 6 under at one point – and climbed into the top 8 on the back of Homa, who one-putted each of his first 10 holes despite hitting just four greens and shot 70.
As for Alabama, the Crimson Tide extended their lead to four, now over UCLA. Whitsett notched five birdies to shoot 68, Thomas added a second straight 70 after a 4-under front nine, and Wyatt was the drop score with a 77.
FOR PART II, CLICK HERE.
– Information and quotes from team sports information departments, Golf Channel and Golfweek Magazine archives and Longhorn Network’s documentary, “Unmatched,” were used in this report