As a two-time runner-up in the State Amateur, University of Utah golfer Blake Tomlinson is known for coming close in big events. Tomlinson did it again Wednesday, when his top-10 finish in an NCAA regional tournament contributed to one of the most meaningful performances in school history.
The Utes placed fifth, six strokes ahead of their closest pursuers, to claim the last berth in the NCAA Championship awarded at the Jimmie Austin OU Golf Club in Norman, Okla. Utah advanced to the NCAA finals for the first time since 1988, predating the regional qualifying format.
Utah finished last in the Pac-12 tournament in each of its first seven years of conference membership, including Tomlinson’s freshman year of 2018. The Utes will be one of five Pac-12 schools in the NCAA finals, thanks to the program’s remarkable improvement in coach Garrett Clegg’s six-year tenure.
Making the NCAA finals “has been our goal all year,” Clegg said, but “recently we haven’t been playing as well as we would have liked. [Wednesday] we got off to a rough start, but we turned it on in the middle stretch of our round.”
Clegg said of Tomlinson, “Blake did an incredible job leading us this week. He played great golf and was rock solid in [the] final round.”
BYU will go to nationals for the 11th time in Bruce Brockbank’s 30 years as coach — and the first time with a five-player lineup of Utah high school graduates. The Cougars comfortably qualified in third place as senior Carson Lundell took medalist honors at The Reserve at Spanos Park in Stockton, Calif.
Mix in the Utah ties to regional champions Georgia Tech and Arizona State, and Wednesday ranks as one of the biggest days in local college golf in 40-plus years, since Utah State’s Jay Don Blake was the 1980 NCAA individual champion and BYU won the ‘81 team title.
The 30-team NCAA Championship begins May 27 at Grayhawk Golf Club in Scottsdale, Ariz., with one variable: BYU will tee off by itself the previous day, rather than compete in the scheduled third round on Sunday, due to school policy. The Cougars played that way in 2018-19. What counted as their third round turned out to be much worse than their scores of the other two days and they tied for 26th place, with a strong team led by Peter Kuest, Patrick Fishburn and Rhett Rasmussen. In 2019, with Lundell in the lineup, the Cougars finished 29th.
The NCAA tournament starts on a Friday, with 72 holes of stroke play preceding the Tuesday-Wednesday match-play portion that accommodates the Golf Channel’s schedule.
Utah’s first appearance in the NCAA finals in 34 years (the ‘88 team automatically qualified as the Western Athletic Conference champion) came via a clutch final round in Norman. The Utes started the day with a one-stroke lead over sixth-place South Carolina, which faded with a 5-over-par final round.
With four of five players’ scores counting in each round, Utah used a 70 from Farmington High School graduate Braxton Watts, a 72 from Tomlinson and 73s by Javier Barcos and Tristan Mandur for an even-par total. State Am champion Martin Leon closed with a 77, but his opening-round 73 was important.
Tomlinson eagled the par-5 No. 18 (his ninth hole) Wednesday after two early bogeys and played solidly for three days. The senior from Skyline HS showed his growth from a 77-77 finish of last May, when the Utes missed a chance to advance in their first regional appearance since 1992.
In California, Lundell (69-68-68) won the individual title by one stroke. The Lone Peak graduate posted an 11-under par total. David Timmins (69-68-70) of Brighton placed fourth. The Cougars also counted a 69 from Skyline product Tyson Shelley and a 70 from Davis alumnus Cole Ponich in the final round. BYU shot 23 under par in the last two rounds, using Lone Peak alumnus Max Brenchley’s 70 on Tuesday.
“Every guy in the team was in the game all day long and in this format, it’s not very often that you get to cruise home the last nine holes to advance,” said BYU director of golf Todd Miller, who functions as Brockbank’s assistant coach.
Lundell said, “We came in with confidence and every guy on our team stepped up when we needed them.”
Arizona State, coached by former BYU golfer Matt Thurmond, won the Stockton regional by 10 strokes over Stanford, with BYU another shot back. Sun Devil freshman Preston Summerhays, a two-time State Amateur winner, posted 72-70-67 to tie for 10th. Big Sky Conference champion Weber State finished last among the 14 teams in Stockton.
At Columbus, Ohio, Georgia Tech rallied to tie Oklahoma State for the team title. Weber HS alumnus Connor Howe (73-68-71) tied for seventh individually, finishing third among his Tech teammates. Bruce Heppler, a graduate of Dixie HS and BYU, is the Yellow Jackets’ longtime coach.
“Just the five scores that we had were tremendous,” Hepper said of the final round, noting Howe’s comeback from a double bogey. “Everybody stayed in the game the whole day.”
Clegg and Brockbank are also homegrown Utahns; each played golf for the school where he now coaches.