For The Herald Bulletin
PULLMAN, Wash. —
The Ball State men’s golf team is on its way to the NCAA Nationals for the first time since 1986 after defeating San Diego State in a playoff Saturday for the fifth and final qualifying spot out of the Pullman Regional.
Former Liberty Christian star Alex Stinson’s up-and-down for birdie out of a greenside bunker on the par-5 18th hole sealed the playoff victory for Ball State, whose four counting scores on the hole bettered San Diego State’s by one.
With all the other regionals complete at the time of the playoff, Ball State became the 30th and final team to punch its ticket to Capital City Club in Atlanta for Nationals from May 28 through June 2.
“It’s absolutely amazing,” Ball State coach Mike Fleck said. “Our motto the last few years has been to stay relevant, and we did that this week. Coming down those last few holes (in regulation), I kind of thought we had lost the opportunity, but we didn’t. It’s amazing what these guys have done and what they continue to do. And we’re still relevant.”
The celebration that followed Stinson’s birdie looked less likely nearly two hours earlier when the Cardinals finished a challenging final round in cold and windy conditions three shots behind San Diego State at 8-under par for the tournament. But the Aztecs were still on the course, and by the time they finished, the teams were tied for fifth.
A playoff ensued with the 10 golfers from the two teams going off in two groups from the 18th tee. The top four scores from each team determined the winner.
All five San Diego State golfers had looks at birdie but could not make them and settled for pars. After Ball State’s Tony Lazzara made a sand save for par in the first group, Stinson’s playing partners, Tyler Merkel and McCormick Clouser, each made pars of their own in the second. Then Stinson, who was in the bunker in two and knocked his sand shot within a foot, tapped in for what was the only birdie.
“It’s something the guys talked about on the tee before the playoff hole,” Fleck said. “They said it was really going to come down to the shots around the green, and it definitely did. San Diego State looked like they were in much better position, but our last three guys got it done. It was awesome to watch.”
Stinson’s playoff birdie capped an impressive week at Washington State’s Palouse Ridge Golf Club. In Saturday’s final round, the senior matched his career best for the second day in a row with a 3-under par 69 to lead Ball State to a final-round total of 291.
Stinson opened with back-to-back birdies for the second straight day on his way to a 33 on his first nine holes and then made all pars on his second nine. He was Ball State’s top individual for the tournament in a tie for 16th at 4-under after a career-low 54-hole total of 212.
Merkel, who overcame a late triple bogey to post a 75 on Saturday, tied for 30th individually at 1-under par. Clouser ended the tournament in a tie for 37th with a career-best 54-hole total of even-par 216. He posted a 76 in the final round.
Joe Gasser fired a final-round 72 that put him in a tie for 41st at 1-over, and Lazzara closed with a 75 to tie for 55th at 5-over. Ball State’s regional total of 864 was the program’s best in a 54-hole NCAA event.
The Cardinals, who started the day in a tie for seventh in the 14-team field, were in and out of fifth position all day on a jumbled middle portion of the leaderboard. Ball State closed with all pars on its final hole of regulation, the ninth, except for an up-and-down birdie from Gasser that proved to be just what the team needed to get into the playoff.
Ball State will now make its 13th appearance at Nationals. Each of its previous appearances came before there were regional rounds to get through.
The Cardinals joined California, TCU, Saint Mary’s and Southern California in advancing from the Pullman Regional. The top-ranked Bears finished the tournament at 43-under, while TCU climbed up on the final day to grab second place at 23-under. Saint Mary’s was third and USC was fourth.
USC’s Sam Smith and California’s Michael Weaver tied for individual medalist honors at 14-under.