Under pressure, Arizona State survives NCAA playoff to keep title hopes alive
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – The past few weeks, Arizona State head coach Matt Thurmond would end each practice with a pressure drill. For example, all five players would have to find the fairway, then get up and down from a bunker, then hole a 10-foot putt. And if any player failed a task, they’d all have to start at the beginning. On one occasion it took the Sun Devils an hour to complete. Other times they’d finish the circuit in 10 minutes or less.
On Monday evening at Grayhawk Golf Club, Arizona State found itself in another high-pressure situation – only this one wasn’t a simulation.
After finishing 72 holes of stroke play at 12 over, the Sun Devils squared off against Stanford in a five-man, sudden-death playoff for the right to face top-seeded North Carolina in Tuesday morning’s quarterfinals of the NCAA Championship. It took a little longer than 10 minutes, but on the second round of extra holes, Arizona State made the clutch putts to extend its season.
Michael Mjaaseth got up and down from behind the par-3 16th hole.
Josele Ballester holed a 6-footer for par at the par-4 17th hole.
Luke Potter had 5 feet for par at the par-4 15th hole and made that. As did Ryggs Johnston, from 4 feet for par at the par-4 18th hole.
With both sides tied at even par, it came down to the Sun Devils’ star sophomore Preston Summerhays and the Cardinal’s junior stud Michael Thorbjornsen, who had chipped in for birdie on No. 18 in the first round of extras. Facing 10 feet up the hill for birdie at the par-4 14th hole, Summerhays drained the putt to send Arizona State into match play for the third straight season at Grayhawk.
“Those were huge putts we made to win, and we needed it all,” Thurmond said, “and every one of those guys are gonna have those putts tomorrow on a big hole in a big match, and hopefully they’ll go in.”
Make no mistake, though; Thurmond’s squad has been facing pressure for three years, ever since Grayhawk hosted its first national championship in 2021. That year, Arizona State made the semifinals before losing to Oklahoma. And then last year, the Sun Devils fell to Texas in the final.
Spot the trend? With one shot left at home, it’s very much NCAA title or bust for Arizona State.
“It sounds super arrogant to say something like this, but we just have so much more stress than a lot teams,” Thurmond said. “Expectations for us are immensely high. Everywhere these guys go, every day, people asking us, ‘Are you guys gonna win it this year?’”
It hasn’t helped that the Sun Devils, despite losing four players from last year’s NCAA starting lineup, remained among the best teams in the country, ranked fourth in the nation entering this week. And playing the second toughest schedule in the country, Arizona State didn’t finish outside the top four while placing second at Pac-12 and winning the NCAA Las Vegas Regional.
Arizona State head women’s coach Missy Farr-Kaye, whose team failed to qualify for nationals this year, remembers Thurmond returning to their shared facility after regionals and exhaling.
“The pressure is real,” she said shortly after watching Monday’s nail-biting finish.
And it’s still real.
When Summerhays’ playoff-winning putt played on the video board behind Grayhawk’s clubhouse, the Sun Devil faithful packing the back patio let out a huge roar. They’re still waiting for that home NCAA triumph.
“Being the last time that we’re going to get this on our home course, it’s just, we had to get this done today,” Johnston said. “We had to get into the top 8 because we know once we get into match play anything can happen, it was just getting here. And it was a battle, but man, we really wanted this one.”
Now, it’s time for the knockout stage, which will also see No. 2 Florida face No. 7 Virginia, No. 3 Illinois play No. 6 Florida State and No. 4 Pepperdine square off against No. 5 Georgia Tech.
Arizona State may have been, in Thurmond’s words, “scratching and clawing” already for 74 holes this week, but the Sun Devils’ job gets even tougher versus a North Carolina squad that is ranked second in the country – and now the team to beat after top-ranked Vanderbilt’s surprising exit.
The Commodores dropped from T-8 to T-11 on Monday with a closing 8-over 288, and they finished nine shots out of the playoff. They also didn’t have a player finish in the top 25, and Gordon Sargent, their superstar, tied for 40th.
“Endings are tough, and I’m hurtin’ for our kids, I really am, because I know that they wanted to do it this year,” Vanderbilt head coach Scott Limbaugh. “Obviously, we had the kind of team to do that, and their season comes up short, and we just gotta keep learning and getting better. There are no excuses, but we didn’t play great SECs, we didn’t play great at regionals … and to get through a tournament like this, you’ve gotta have a couple dudes clicking.”
Arizona State arguably has all five guys clicking after a slow start, as the Sun Devils have thrown out a 73 and two 72s the past three days. That’s part of the reason Thurmond says to throw out the seedings, and the rankings.
Anyone can beat anyone now.
“There is no such thing,” Thurmond said of the numbers in front of the teams’ names. “It doesn’t really matter. It’s just like regionals; who cares what your seed is? We’ve seen North Carolina many, many times; we’ve beaten them a lot, they’ve beaten us a lot. So, really the seedings at this point are mostly irrelevant because we all start at zero.
“They might tee off first, and that’s the extent of their advantage.”