Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 28, 2022

The Underdogs Have Their Day

It was not a great weekend for favorites.  That was certainly true in college basketball, where Saturday gave fans the historic spectacle of each of the top six teams in the current rankings losing.  Gonzaga, Arizona, Auburn, Purdue, Kansas, and Kentucky all played conference games on the road, and each went down to defeat, to the delight of the home crowds pulling for St. Mary’s, Colorado, Tennessee, Michigan State, Baylor, and Arkansas.  For good measure 9th-ranked Texas Tech also lost on the road, falling 69-66 to TCU.

Texas Tech’s loss was particularly embarrassing, since TCU is unranked and even with the upset victory remains under .500 in Big 12 play.  Arizona and Purdue also fell to unranked squads in Colorado and Michigan State, but at least the Buffaloes and Spartans have winning conference records, and Michigan State was ranked as high as tenth in the AP poll earlier in the season.  After three straight losses in Big 10 play, the Spartans’ 68-65 victory, which was sealed by a Tyson Walker three-pointer in the final seconds, gave longtime coach Tom Izzo conference win number 662, matching Bob Knight’s total for the most wins by a men’s team coach in Big 10 history.

While unprecedented, the carnage at the top of the collegiate basketball poll rankings was so thorough that it probably had relatively little impact on either the next poll, which will be out Monday, or on the likely seeding for the NCAA Division I tournament, which is about to become of much greater importance to many teams. 

The upsets didn’t stop when the calendar turned to Sunday either, with unranked Maryland dispatching number 22 Ohio State 75-60 in College Park.  Nor were they limited to the men’s game, or even just basketball, though seven of the top ten teams in the country all losing on the same day understandably captured the headlines.  Michigan, ranked 6th in the latest women’s poll, was humbled by #21 Iowa Sunday afternoon, 104-80.  And then there was Daniel Berger.

Though not exactly a household name, Berger is known to golf fans, having won four times on the PGA Tour, including at the 2020 Charles Schwab Challenge, the first tournament back after the Tour’s pause in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, and at Pebble Beach last year.  He also had top-10 finishes at two of last year’s majors and was a member of the triumphant 2021 U.S. Ryder Cup team.  Given the field at the Honda Classic, the first leg of the Tour’s annual swing through Florida at the nexus between winter and spring, Berger surely counted as one of the pre-tournament favorites.  The field for last week’s L.A. Open was star-studded.  But with the Arnold Palmer Invitational next on the schedule and the Players Championship one week later, it was inevitable that many top-ranked golfers would opt for a week off and the starting lineup at the Honda would suffer.  When play began on Thursday, only Louis Oosthuizen and Brooks Koepka teed off with world rankings higher than Berger, who is currently 17th (he’s been as high as 12th). 

 But just as an unusually large number of college basketball teams found out this weekend, rankings do not guarantee results.  Oosthuizen opened with a 5-over par 75 and needed some serious second round heroics to even make the weekend, eventually finishing tied for 30th at 2-over.  Koepka had a better start, but then ran in place through the final three rounds, winding up with an even par total of 280 strokes for four trips around PGA National’s Champion Course. 

In fairness to both golfers, those scores are no disgrace.  The Palm Beach Gardens layout is annually one of the toughest on tour, with narrow fairways and water, water, everywhere a player turns.  Those facts made Berger’s start especially impressive.  He was one of three golfers to shoot 65 on Thursday, one adrift of first round leader Kurt Kitayama’s 64.  A PGA Tour rookie who earned his card last season on the developmental Korn Ferry Tour, Kitayama didn’t collapse after that surprising start.  While he couldn’t match his own early pace, he hung around throughout the event and went home with a third-place check for $552,000.  But Berger did stay on the gas, returning another 65 on Friday to move to 10-under, good for a three-shot lead.  When he added a 1-under 69 on Saturday, the lead ballooned to five strokes over a chasing foursome of Kitayama, Shane Lowry, Chris Kirk, and Sepp Straka.

But like most PGA Tour events, the Honda Classic is played over 72 holes, not 54, and as much as Berger had been in control for three days and was the heavy favorite at the start of the final 18, it took barely an hour to undo all the easy assumptions.  Berger made hash of the par-5 3rd hole, recording a double-bogey 7, and when he three-putted the par-3 5th his lead was gone, thanks to a pair of early birdies by Lowry.  Another bogey by Berger on the 6th gifted Lowry the lead.

From there what had been presumed to be a pleasant Sunday stroll for the 54-hole leader turned into a dogfight, but as can happen in golf, while everyone was watching the final pairing go back and forth, a player up ahead was busy climbing the leaderboard.  That golfer was Straka, a 28-year-old Austrian who like many promising teenage European golfers, both male and female, came to the U.S. to play collegiate golf, in Straka’s case at the University of Georgia.  He became the first Austrian golfer to earn a PGA Tour card based on his finish on the Korn Ferry Tour in 2018.  For the last three years he’s been the archetype of a PGA Tour journeyman, posting the occasional top-25 finish while earning roughly $1 million a year and just enough FedEx Cup points to keep his card.

Straka’s horizons have now changed, thanks to steady play on one of the Tour’s most difficult tracks.  Birdies on the 14th and 16th allowed him to overtake Berger and catch Lowry.  Then, as late afternoon rain poured down on Florida’s Atlantic coast, Straka found the green with his second shot on the par-5 closing hole.  He nearly holed his eagle try, settling for a tap-in birdie that moved him into the lead at 10-under par.  Behind, Lowry’s chances died off the tee, with a drive that hooked left into deep, wet rough, and Berger’s slim hopes ended with a second shot that found the water in front of the 18th green. 

So the weekend ended as it began, with upsets galore across multiple sports.  Unexpected outcomes that mock conventional wisdom are the eternal source of boundless joy in all our games.  As they will happily tell you on the campus of St. Mary’s, or Iowa, or at Sepp Straka’s home, whatever the odds, there is always a reason to play the game.

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