SAVANNAH, Ga. - Keila Auvenshine's eyes began to burn.
Her longtime boyfriend, Dane Burkhart, just birdied the next-to-last in the NCAA Division II Championships. Hold back the tears, she thought, as she walked to the final hole.
She couldn't. She kept thinking of Burkhart's grandfather, Gorman Williams.
It was Williams who bought Burkhart his first set of clubs. It was Williams who taught Burkhart the game of golf. It was Williams who continued coaching Burkhart until his death.
"Every time I tee it up I think of him," Burkhart said of his grandfather, who died of cancer during Burkhart's freshman year of high school at South Aiken. "But he's with me in spirit, and he's pulled me through so many times.
"I know he's up in heaven smiling down right now."
A USC Aiken junior, Burkhart birdied two of his final six holes Friday to win medalist honors by one shot ahead of Hawaii-Hilo's Nick Mason at The Club at Savannah Harbor.
After opening with rounds of 71, 68 and 68, Burkhart recorded a final-round of 1-over-par 72 to finish at 5-under 279.
Led by Burkhart's performance, No. 1 USC Aiken won its second consecutive national title. The Pacers shot 9-over 293 to finish at 22 over, five shots ahead of Armstrong Atlantic State.
USC Aiken capped its finest season ever, recording their 11th victory in 13 events this season, including five consecutive titles to end the year.
"This season has been wonderful," junior Scott Brown said. "I don't know how you can make it any better. To win 11 of 13 events, it's special."
USC Aiken carried a four-shot lead over Armstrong Atlantic State into the final round. The Pirates looked to break a dry spell against the Pacers after finishing second to USC Aiken at Peach Belt Conference Championship and the NCAA Southeast Regional.
"We wanted to play like we were dead even with (Armstrong Atlantic State) and we had to beat them to win," USC Aiken coach Michael Carlisle said.
Like his team, Burkhart led the individual competition after 54 holes. He led by three over Mason, but began laboring on the front side.
USC Aiken's lead began to shrink on the back nine as the more aggressive Pirates began to charge. On the short par-4 14th hole, almost every USC Aiken player hit iron off the tee to find the tight fairway. Armstrong Atlantic State's players used driver.
The Pirates were rewarded with their attack, carding two birdies and an eagle from Ashley Loyd to cut into USC Aiken's advantage.
"They had nothing to lose," Pacers sophomore Casey Thompson said. "It was our tournament to lose, and they were coming after us."
Clint Smith, who along with Brown and Burkhart brought home the school's first national championship last year, later did the improbable. On the 200-yard, 17th hole, he three-putted from 10 feet for triple bogey.
"I was sitting there at 17 green," Smith said, "waiting for Carlisle or someone to come down there and kill me."
Burkhart sat on the tee, watching Smith's disaster unfold. The par 3 played as the fifth-hardest hole on the course with the pin tucked in the front of the green behind an imposing pond.
With little margin of error, Burkhart "took a little off a 5-iron" and rifled an aggressive shot toward the pin. His ball took one hop on the front of the green and rolled within 4 feet.
"That was the shot of the tournament, for him and the team," Carlisle said. "He's never been short on (confidence)."
But there was more trouble ahead at the toughest hole of the day, the 450-yard, par-4 18th. Thompson made double bogey, then Brown found his approach shot in a buried lie in the front bunker.
He blasted beyond the green, chipped up and rolled in a four-foot bogey putt.
"I didn't want to lose two shots there," Brown said. "I knew it might be close. And every shot counts."
The Pirates limped in, however, recording a double bogey on No. 17 and two bogeys at No. 18. Led by Jonathan Cox's 71, Armstrong Atlantic State shot 294 to finish behind USC Aiken once again.
Brown shot USC Aiken's best final round with 71 to tie for 10th place at 289. Smith (75, 293) tied for 20th place, while Casey Thompson shot 75 (300, tie for 46th) and Tyler Rolley managed 77 (312, tie for 85th).
After the tournament, Burkhart and Brown were each named to the Golf Coaches Association of America first team.
Burkhart also won the Arnold Palmer award for being the Division II national championship medalist and the Jack Nicklaus award, for the Division II Player of the Year.
The awards come as Burkhart finishes a spectacular stretch of college golf. He recorded 12 top-10 finishes and ended the season with a school record 71.74 stroke average. Burkhart adds a national title after winning the Peach Belt tournament last month.
"He's been on a streak for three months that I'd love to get a hold of," Brown said. "I'm glad he's on my team. That's all I've got to say."
Reach Chris Gay at (706) 823-3645 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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