Hardly any of the group that started Wednesday’s third and final round near the top of the NCAA Noblesville Regional would end it there.
The individual title wouldn’t be battled for by players already in the national championship courtesy of their team’s qualification. It would instead be fought for, until the final hole of the tournament, by four individuals looking to keep their seasons alive on their own terms.
Missouri men’s golf’s Ross Steelman was one of them. He soared up the leaderboard with a barrage of early birdies, but his title hopes came crashing down as his competitors took it deep down the stretch.
Purdue’s Cole Bradley put together the lowest round of the week in Round 3 and tied the course record at Sagamore Golf Club to claim the individual title and qualification to the national championship. He posted a 7-under 65 on Wednesday in Noblesville, Indiana, to finish the event at 10-under 206, two strokes clear of West Virginia’s individual Mark Goetz and three clear of Steelman and Arkansas State’s Zan Luka Stirn.
Steelman was part of the four-way tussle for the top spot, frequently jumping into a share of an ever-changing lead. But in the end, his third-round 6-under 66, which took him to a tournament total of 7-under 209, tied for third and three strokes short of the winning number.
“When I was 7 under through 14 holes, I thought to myself, ‘Yeah, you know what, if you birdie every other hole coming in, you’re probably gonna have a pretty good chance,’” Steelman said. “I thought in the back of my mind if I was able to shoot 9 (under) today I’d be able to get in and win, or be right around it. And it turns out that would have been the case.
“Obviously it would have been fun to get that, but I’m still pretty happy with how I played.”
Steelman stepped up on the 16th tee in a three-way tie for the lead, with Bradley and Goetz behind him on the course. A bogey-5 at the Par-4 dropped him a stroke behind, but the killer blow was yet to come.
He closed with a pair of pars, and Bradley did him two better.
The Purdue junior made a birdie-2 on the 235-yard Par-3 17th and followed that with another birdie at the Par-5 18th to clinch the title and an invitation to Grayhawk Golf Club in Scottsdale, Arizona, from May 28-June 2.
Bradley shut the door on the three other individuals attempting to prolong their seasons without their respective teams, despite each putting together some of the lowest rounds of the week.
Steelman and Stirn signed for 6-under 66s — the joint-second-lowest rounds of the event. Goetz, who entered the final round leading the four title contenders at 4 under and tied for fourth, recorded a 4-under 68.
But none of that was enough to catch Bradley, who went bogey-free in the final 18 holes to seal the deal.
“(Bradley) didn’t just shoot the round of the week, he shot the course record out there,” Steelman said. “When someone does that and beats you, you kind of say, ‘Well done. Congratulations, and I’m gonna go work my butt off to beat you next time.’”
Steelman, a Rock Bridge grad, started the day tied for 12th and five strokes off the lead but got off to a hot start in search of a national berth. On the front nine, he made five birdies without a drop shot to turn in 5-under 31. He followed that with further red numbers at the Par-4 12th and Par-5 14th to get to 7 under on the day and 8 under for the tournament.
“I really came out firing today,” Steelman said. “Just barely stalled out on the back nine. I had a lot more good birdie and even a couple eagle looks, but just couldn’t quite get them to drop. But it was awesome just being out there and able to compete in the regional, and play and beat a lot of good players out there.”
Three of the four players who led the field were competing as individuals. Luka Stirn was the only one in that group competing with his team, Arkansas State, which failed to qualify for the national championship, finishing the event in seventh.
Texas won the team event with a three-round total of 20 under, beating out North Carolina and Tennessee to win the title by five strokes. Louisville and UAB rounded out the national championship qualifiers in fourth and fifth place, respectively. North Florida was the first team out, finishing four strokes behind UAB, which posted the low team round of the tournament Wednesday with a 13-under 275 to finish 5 under for the event.
The thrilling title race concluded a breakout year for Steelman, a redshirt sophomore. He ends the season with a win at the MU Tiger Invitational, three top-five finishes and 16 of 30 rounds under par.
“It was, obviously, for myself a really big building block of a year,” Steelman said. “I moved up. I wanna say I stared the season at 1,300 in (the World Amateur Golf Rankings) and now I’ll be somewhere in the low-200s, high-100s. Just really being able to put some more consistently good performances together was really important for me, and going forward I think this semester and year as a whole is going to be something I can lean on.”