Rabalais: Dream putt seals LSU’s national golf title _lowres

Photo by Tim Cowie -- LSU's Ben Taylor holds the trophy after the Tigers defeated Southern California to win the NCAA men's national golf championship Wednesday at The Concession Golf Club in Bradenton, Fla.

Every day at the end of their practice sessions, LSU’s golfers would gather for a putting competition on their practice green at the University Club.

It’s the kind of game every youngster who comes up in golf plays at some time or another: (golf whisper) “If he makes this putt, he becomes the youngest Masters champion.”

In Ben Taylor’s case, growing up as he did in England, the imaginary game was to make a putt to win the British Open. In the putting contests with his teammates, the imaginary stakes were for the NCAA championship.

Taylor said he can’t ever recall making one of those faux pressure putts with his college mates.

Not until Wednesday, when he faced the real thing.

Wednesday, it all came down to the senior from London and a sliding left-to-right 9-footer to close out Southern California and lock up LSU’s first NCAA men’s golf championship since 1955.

“Deep down, everyone wants to be able to do that,” Taylor said.

“I guess I saved it for when it mattered.”

Truth to tell, it was just the putt that put the wobbling Trojans down for the count. LSU’s Zach Wright and Brandon Pierce had already won their matches, putting the Tigers point away from capturing that long-elusive title.

Taylor probably sewed it up the hole before, when he guided a bounding 258-yard 4-iron (if you’re not a golfer, that’s a massively long way with a 4-iron) onto the green of the par-5 17th to within about 5 feet before making the putt for eagle to tie his match with Bobby Gojuangco.

But it’s the last putt, which brought the kind of storybook going-out-on-top ending to his career that every senior wants to experience but hardly ever does, that stuck with him.

“I’m still on cloud nine,” Taylor said. “I can’t believe it was me.”

Taylor’s clincher was the final act of a decade-long run back to the top of collegiate golf under LSU coach Chuck Winstead, the former Tiger turned teaching pro who didn’t need the LSU job when it was offered to him but wanted it to see what he could build.

There were signposts of improvement and achievement within the program, like John Peterson’s NCAA individual title in 2011, and last year’s run to the NCAA match play semifinals before losing to Alabama at Prairie Dunes in Kansas.

This year’s championship moved to The Concession Golf Club in Bradenton, Florida, a course filled with water hazards and sand and the kind of devilishly undulating greens the Tigers practice on at the U-Club all the time.

“This was part of a plan,” LSU Athletic Director Joe Alleva said. “We spent $4 million to renovate that golf course. The greens at the University Club are very similar to here.

“We’ve got a great coach, and he’s been able to use it, to recruit to it. The best thing is he gets kids and makes them better. He’s a great teacher.”

The U-Club’s greens were beefed up in a 2011 renovation, in large part to better prepare LSU’s golf teams for tournament success. Pair that with an impressive practice facility and golf-friendly year-round weather, and there’s little reason the Tigers shouldn’t have big-time success.

“I’ve said it a million times: This didn’t happen by accident,” Winstead said. “A lot of people played a role in this.”

If anything, the program is ahead of schedule from the reboot after the stellar team spearheaded by Peterson and Andrew Loupe left the stage four years ago.

To merely say the future of LSU golf is bright would be to look at it through welder’s goggles. Winstead is bringing in a stellar recruiting class this fall led by Shreveport’s Sam Burns, the 2014 Rolex junior national player of the year and a disciple of former LSU star David Toms’ Academy 265 in their hometown.

“Everybody was really excited about the signing class coming in this fall, and we should be,” Winstead said. “But the guys here this year, they can play, too. Those two sophomores, Eric Ricard and Brandon Pierce, were phenomenal all year long. Brandon just broke DT’s (Toms’) single-season scoring record.”

In other words, there may be some more putts like the one Taylor had Wednesday in LSU’s future.

Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.