J.T. Higgins was sitting with his Texas A&M golf team at an Outback Steakhouse in Toledo, Ohio. It was the night before A&M's national championship match against Arkansas in the summer of 2009.
In front of him was the same meal he had ordered all week: the Outback Special with veggies and a house salad with ranch. He listened to his No. 1 player, Bronson Burgoon, saying that he wanted the match to come down to the 18th hole, with both teams tied at two victories apiece, and with the championship on the line.
Burgoon got his wish.
In 2009, Texas A&M was expected to contend. The team had qualified for the NCAA Championship in the four previous seasons and had finished 12th in the nation in 2008 — the program's highest finish since 1984.
After finishing fifth at the NCAA regionals in San Francisco, the team qualified for its fifth consecutive NCAA Championship. It was the first year the NCAA had implemented match play, meaning there would be three rounds of stroke play to determine the top eight teams. At that point, there would be four quarterfinal matches, two semifinal matches and one championship match.
Before the team departed for Toledo, Higgins chose Burgoon, Andrea Pavan, Matt Van Zandt and John Hurley as his top four golfers. For the fifth, he picked Conrad Shindler, who had played well in the qualifying rounds before the postseason, but hadn't yet played in the postseason.
"He couldn't leave me off the roster as good as I was playing," Shindler said.
After a stellar second round of 276 — 8-under par — A&M went into the third round in third place, one good round away from clinching a spot in match play. But through 10 holes, the team was 10-over and had slipped out of the top eight.
Shindler stepped up. On the par-five 13th, he hit his second shot to within inches of the cup for a tap-in eagle. A hole later, he birdied. He parred in, and finished the round at 1-under and in 13th place at the end of stroke play — the highest individual finish for an Aggie since 1982.
Going into the afternoon rounds, the team was on edge. A&M needed either Georgia or TCU to blow up during their rounds to get a shot at match play. How did Higgins handle those tense hours?
"We didn't want to stay at the golf course and root against other teams," he said. "So we went to Taco Bell."
For the next two hours, they sat in the nearby restaurant, hoping that a team would get on a bogey train.
"Our cell phones were dying pretty fast with us hitting the refresh button, watching scores come in," Shindler said.
TCU stumbled down the stretch. A&M and Georgia were able to secure their spots in the match-play portion by tying for seventh place.
That night, the team returned to Outback. Optimism surrounded the table.
"Because we were a bunch of gritty guys," Shindler said, "we knew if we could get into match play, we could be dangerous."
Against Arizona State, the No. 2 seed, the Aggies won thanks to multiple-shot victories by Hurley, Burgoon and Shindler. Andrea Pavan was the only A&M player to lose his individual match that day, but Higgins said something clicked for Pavan.
"He was just hitting it terrible," Higgins said. "But near the end of the match, he hit a 2-iron on a par four and looked at me and said, in his Italian accent, 'I figured it out.' But it's too late, I'm going to lose this match.' I told him, 'Andrea we're winning, we get to play tomorrow.' He looked at me and goes, 'Oh, I'm going to win.'"
Pavan didn't lose a hole for the rest of the week. In the semifinals, the team beat Michigan 4-1 to qualify for the national championship match against Arkansas.
Shindler recalls a relaxed atmosphere at Outback that night. He says Higgins told them to "not change a thing." And he remembers not getting to sleep until close to 3 a.m.
"There was just so much adrenaline flowing with so much on the line," he said.
In the championship match, Hurley (6-and-4) and Pavan (7-and-6) won their matches. But Shindler and Van Zandt both lost, which set the stage for the team's No. 1 player.
"Bronson's one of the best ball strikers of all time [at A&M]," Shindler said. "We felt pretty comfortable with him at the back."
When Burgoon walked to the 14th tee, he was four up on Andrew Landry. A national championship was one hole victory away. But he hooked his drive into the rough, and in the process, Higgins said he lost his cool. Four bogeys later, the match was tied.
"I was struggling the last four holes," Burgoon said. "I put more pressure on myself than I should have."
Burgoon walked up to the 18th tee, and Higgins gave him a pep talk.
"I told him, 'I wouldn't rather have anyone else in the world playing,'" Higgins said. "'Second of all, this is what you wanted. Go take it.' Of course, I went to go walk down the fairway to look at the pin placement, and I hear 'Fore, right!'"
Burgoon, as he had done on the previous four holes, sent his drive into the right rough. Landry, on the other hand, put it right in the middle of the fairway. Landry's approach landed on the first cut just short of the green, and he was in position to make par.
A&M assistant coach Jonathan Dismuke was standing in the rough with Burgoon as he eyed his second shot. Higgins said Burgoon needed to hit the ball about 20 feet to the right of the pin and it would trickle down close to the hole.
"He looked at Bronson and said, 'This is us, not you, listen to me,'" Higgins said of Dismuke's instruction. "Bronson was desperate. He said, 'Whatever you tell me, I'll do.' He hit it, it landed perfect and started trickling and it was over."
The 125-yard gap wedge shot trickled to within 3 inches of the cup for a conceded birdie.
"Right when it cleared the hill, I knew it was going to go down pretty close to the hole," Burgoon said.
After Landry missed a 35-foot birdie putt, it was official: The Aggies were national champions. It marked A&M's first national championship since the softball team won in 1987. It was also the first men's national championship since the football team won in 1939.
"This was better than any dream I ever had in my life," Burgoon said.