Amid pressure and without its leader, Texas digs big hole in NCAA title defense

Amid pressure and without its leader, Texas digs big hole in NCAA title defense
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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – It’s been déjà vu so far at this week’s NCAA Championship for Texas head coach John Fields and his Longhorns.

Unfortunately for Texas, we’re talking about two years ago, not last year.

The Longhorns sputtered mightily at Grayhawk in 2021, running out of gas after a busy spring and missing the 54-hole cut. Of course, they rebounded from that painful experience in a big way the following spring by capturing the program’s fourth NCAA team title behind the senior trio of Cole Hammer and twins, Pierceson and Parker Coody.

While Texas earned the right to defend its title, it hasn’t been – and continues to be – a difficult road as the Longhorns have dealt with heavy pressure –  and for the past two events the absence of their top player – on the heels of last year’s special run.

On Saturday, Texas shot 12 over, a day after its 15-over opening round, and sat ahead of just one team in the 30-team field after the morning wave.

“I really feel like we have a great team, but the amount of pressure that these guys assumed this year was unfortunate,” Fields said. “It just didn’t need to happen, and I tried to mitigate it every way that I could. But we’re here, we’re at the NCAA Championship, they’re getting invaluable experience, especially our young guys; you stay in it the whole way and just keep coming.”

An explanation for the Longhorns’ inconsistent year is that this is a young team with three freshmen – Christiaan Maas, Keaton Vo and Tommy Morrison – in the starting lineup at nationals and another, Jacob Sosa, listed as the substitute. Also, just one player from last year’s NCAA squad, senior Mason Nome, is back at Grayhawk, which has put even more stress on the newcomers. The other senior, reigning U.S. Open low amateur Travis Vick, the guy who made the championship-winning putt against Arizona State, has struggled enough this spring – just one finish in six starts inside the top 40 – that Fields had little choice but to sacrifice a potential experience bump, even with Vick as a sub, and leave his star player home.

“You miss the great player that he can be, and he is a great person, and his family are great people, so it breaks my heart that he’s not here right now,” Fields said. But bottom line, if he could’ve been here, he would’ve been here.”

Who knows if Texas would’ve handled these first 36 holes with their emotional and usually physical leader in tow. The pressure – and a busy slate of tournaments and qualifying down the stretch – has clearly worn down this squad. Fields admits his players, four of whom currently sit outside the top 100 on the individual leaderboard, are struggling to find focus right now, adding that although he’s thrilled that they’ve made it this far, these five Longhorns teeing it up this week continue to place high expectations on themselves in what now looks to be a short title defense.

“They’re stinging right now,” Fields said, “but we have a day tomorrow, even if it’s in afternoon, to come out and have a great round.”

And if they don’t?

“Whoever wins this,” Fields added, “God love ‘em because they’re going to have to deal with this pressure next year.”

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