By Murray Evans
PANAMA CITY BEACH, Fla. (Oct. 23, 2013) – Sam Johnston stood over a makeable birdie putt on his final hole Wednesday and hit it well, but the ball lipped out of the hole.
So went Oklahoma Christian’s day in the final round of the National Christian College Athletic Association Championship at The Hombre Golf Club’s Ugly and Bad courses.
The Eagles, seeking to defend their NCCAA title, started the day one shot out of the lead, amid a pack of five teams within four shots of each other. But while the Eagles grinded out a team score of 300 on a windy day, Lee (Tenn.) – which opened with that one-shot advantage – shot a 291 and won by two shots over Dallas Baptist (Texas).
Southern Wesleyan (S.C.) was another seven shots back, one ahead of OC, which finished with a three-day score of 879.
OC finished in the top four of a national tournament for the 15th straight academic year and Johnston ended up as the individual runner-up for the second straight year. But there was definite surprise that the Eagles – who won the 2012 title by a whopping 52 shots – never made the final-day run that most of the other teams at the tournament expected.
“We got off to a poor start again – that’s three days in a row, honestly,” OC coach David Lynn said. “I’m happy that we grinded it out today. … We were struggling but the guys kept their heads up. We worked so hard this fall to try to put ourselves in a position to have a chance to win. We got ourselves in that position and we didn’t capitalize. That happens. That’s sports.”
It quickly became evident that it might not be the Eagles’ day when they played No. 10 – the first hole of their round – in a collective 3-over. OC had four double bogeys from No. 10 to No. 18 and fell further back before making the turn.
The Eagles weren’t the only team having trouble. Dallas Baptist fell back into fifth for a time before rallying over the final nine holes. Southern Wesleyan seemed destined to fall to sixth, but also found its stride on its final nine. Colorado Christian, which was tied with OC to start the day, ran into trouble midway through the round and eventually did drop to sixth place.
Of all the teams on the leaderboard, Lee played the steadiest and thus the Flames – who, like the Eagles, are a program in the midst of the NCAA Division II membership process – ended up winning the national title.
Johnston entered Wednesday four shots behind the leader, Zach Moore of Southern Wesleyan, but wasn’t able to close the gap, shooting a 1-over 73 to finish at 3-under 213 for the tournament. Moore ended up winning medalist honors by two shots.
Last year, Johnston and current OC senior Alasdair Dalgliesh tied for second behind now-departed teammate Vilhelm Bogstrand.
“He didn’t have his best stuff this week,” Lynn said of Johnston. “He struggles to putt on Bermuda (greens) a little bit. But it’s a good field. For him to finish second with probably his ‘C’ game is great.”
Trey Payne turned in the second-best round of the day for the Eagles, a 1-over 73 that included five birdies. He finished 26th in the 96-man field at 224.
But the other three OC players had difficulty. Taylor Williams, who started the day in the top 10 and at 2-under for the tournament, finished at 79 and tied for 20th at 221. Dalgliesh and Johnny Ellis both shot a 77 and finished 25th and tied for 45th, respectively, at 223 and 234.
Lynn, while disappointed, chose to focus on the positives of a fall season that included two wins, one runner-up finish in an NCAA Division II tournament and one third-place finish against strong competition.
“We’ve gotten accustomed to competing to try to win and have had a lot of top finishes,” Lynn said. “That’s good for the program and that’s great for the school. We’re honored to represent Oklahoma Christian and the guys did a good job of that. They’re a great group of kids.”