They were calling it the greatest day in University of Utah golf history Saturday at Riverside Country Club where five Ute players, whose biggest previous athletic accomplishment was winning the school intramural basketball championship this winter, walked off with Utah's first-ever Western Athletic Conference golf championship.
The Utes held off challenges by New Mexico and late-charging BYU to capture a four-shot victory over the Cougars with an 865 total. Meanwhile, Matt Johnson made it a clean sweep for the Utes as he won medalist honors with a two-shot victory over BYU senior Bruce Brockbank - the Utes' first individual championship since Bruce Summerhays won in 1965.The victory sewed up an NCAA berth for the Utes, their first since . . . well, in a long, long time. No one knows for sure the last time the Utes played in the NCAA tournament, although it is known that Utah finished ninth in the 1950 NCAA tournament played at Albuquerque.
"This has been a long time coming, but I couldn't be happier," said Ute Coach Ron Branca, shortly after being doused with a bucket of water by senior Blair Philip. "This is a really exciting time for us."
Utah's previous top WAC finish was third place in 1970. The closest the Utes had ever come to the first-place team was 27 shots, both in 1983 and 1986, when they finished fourth.
This year, the Utes led right from the opening bell when Eric Nielsen put a WAC record-tying 65 on the board Thursday. Going into Saturday's final 18 holes, the Ute lead was down to one shot over New Mexico and six over BYU.
Most everyone, maybe even a few Ute backers, expected the Utes to fold their tents when the pressure hit Saturday. After all, it had happened several other times this year, when the Utes couldn't finish strong after quick starts.
BYU Coach Karl Tucker expected as much.
"I honestly felt like if we shot 284 we'd win going away," he said after his players shot a 282, the best score of the day.
"But I've got to give all the credit in the world to Utah. Every time we'd challenge them they responded. I have nothing but admiration for them - they're great kids and Ron's a classy guy."
The Utes' surprise victory put a damper on the Cougars' NCAA hopes. BYU pretty much had an NCAA berth in the bag, but because of a conference rule that says the WAC champion must get a berth ahead of anyone else in the league, the Cougars may be bumped by Utah. That's because New Mexico and UTEP, which tied for fourth this week, have better season records than BYU and only three teams are selected from Region VII.
Team golf has never been known as one of the more exciting athletic events known to man, but Saturday's final round had plenty of drama for five full hours. Utah and New Mexico were within a couple of shots of each other throughout the day, while BYU came back after a slow start to make a run at the end.
After nine holes, the Utes and Lobos were both 3-under-par for the day while BYU was 4-over. That left the Utes a stroke in front and BYU seemingly out of the running, 13 shots behind.
Utah had a disastrous 11th hole with four bogeys and a double bogey, and by the 13th hole the Utes were even-par and Lobos 1-under, making the two teams dead even for the tournament. BYU had moved up to within eight shots of the lead.
New Mexico appeared to take the lead briefly, but two Lobo players hit into the trees at No. 15. Then Utah's Philip birdied four of the last six holes and Johnson made key birdies at 13 and 16 to sew it up for Utah. By playing the last nine holes in 9-under-par, the Cougars nipped New Mexico for second.
Johnson ended up with a 68 for a 211 total, Philip had a 71, sophomore Doug Roberts came through with a 69 and Devin Dehlin held on for a 76. Nielsen's 78 was the non-counter of the day.
Johnson, a 24-year-old junior from Bountiful, had started the round a shot behind teammate Nielsen and New Mexico's Derek Crawford. With Nielsen blowing up on the front nine with a 41, it became a three-man race between Johnson, Crawford and Brockbank.
At No. 13, Johnson sank a 15-foot birdie after which Brockbank missed a 4-footer. Crawford scrambled to make par at 13 and bogeyed at 15 and 18 to fall to third place. Johnson and Brockbank, playing together, both made nice birdies at 16.
At 18, leading by two, Johnson hit his drive into a fairway trap, while Brockbank was down the middle. But Johnson hit a 7-iron some 170 yards onto the green and two-putted for the victory.
"My legs were shaking like crazy," admitted Johnson of his final 1-footer, which brought hoops and hollers from his teammates behind the green. "My putting was the key today. I made everything I looked at."
Philip, who had come to Utah as a referral from BYU's Tucker, promised his teammates before the day started that he would shoot under par. After going 3-over through 12 holes, he kept his promise with birds at 13, 14, 16 and 18.
"I was wondering if we'd ever win one," said Philip, the only senior and only non-Utahn (he's from British Columbia) on the team. "In the past we've always fizzled out at the end, but we were mad enough that we didn't today."
"This team was so gutty, knowing what they had to do and feeling all the pressure they did," said Branca. "This is the biggest thing to happen to Utah golf . . . at least since I've been here."
Back in the late 1940s, Utah had the strongest program in the Intermountain region, when Billy Johnston, Walt Harris, Pete Hualde and Tommy Williams led the Utes to consecutive conference championships. The Utes also won conference titles in the late 1950s. Down through the years the Utes have had some top golfers but haven't put it together as a team.
Now, after all these years, the Utes are off to the NCAA championships May 25-28 at Thousand Oaks, Calif.