College Golf: Recapping the Fall and Previewing the Spring

The 2016 fall season saw some surprises, but many of the same powerhouse teams are at the top of the rankings. Freshmen have really made an impact so far this season, especially for some of the top teams like Illinois, Florida, Vanderbilt, and USC. Let’s look at some of the top performers from the fall season and some questions that could arise during the spring and championship season.

The teams at the top

1) Florida

Last year, Florida had flashes of brilliance, but ultimately showed that they were a young team in need of some experience. Led by Sophomore star Sam Horsfield, in likely his final season before turning professional, the Gators have made a big jump this year with wins at the Windon Memorial and a statement victory at the Tavistock Collegiate Invitational. Gordon Neale and Jorge Garcia have continued their great play, Alejandro Tosti is realizing his potential, and heralded Freshman Andy Zhang has proved to be the last piece of the puzzle. The Gators most impressive win came at the Tavistock (one of the fall season’s best fields), where they won by 11 shots, and Tosti captured the individual title. The Gators will look to continue their strong play through the spring and to Rich Harvest Farms.

2) USC

Being ranked #1 in the preseason polls meant USC came into the fall with a lot of expectations. The Trojans have made deep runs in the past two NCAA Championships, finishing runner-up in 2015, and reaching the semi-finals in 2016. The addition of Freshman Cheng Jin added another piece to potentially the most talented lineup in college golf. The Trojans return all of their players from a team that made the semifinals a year ago, and are led by upperclassmen stars and Walker Cup hopefuls Sean Crocker and Rico Hoey. They had a slow start to the fall, but closed with two wins at the Cypress Point Classic and the Gifford Collegiate. The Trojans should build on their experiences over the past two years in match play to make another deep run at Rich Harvest Farms. Learn more about USC's Team.

USC after winning at Cypress Point.

USC after winning at Cypress Point.

3) Vanderbilt

The Commodores have been on a great run since Head Coach Scott Limbaugh took over in 2012, including making match play at the past two NCAA Championships. The Commodores are led by Matthias Schwab, and have a deep lineup including Sophomores Patrick Martin and Will Gordon and Junior Theo Humphrey. The addition of Freshman John Augenstein has provided a spark in the lineup, and he has solidified his spot for the spring season. The Commodores biggest win came at the Nike Collegiate Invitational where they won by one shot over Florida at historic Colonial Country Club. While we haven’t seen a lot of Vanderbilt, their only stroke play finishes were a 1st and a 2nd, leading to the #1 ranking that they will carry into the spring season. 

Teams On the Rise:

1) Ole Miss

Head Coach Chris Malloy could very well be awarded Coach of the Year for the job he has done at Ole Miss this year. In his first two years as the head coach at South Florida, the team had the largest gain in the rankings in the country, and he is now bringing that same success to Oxford since he took over in 2014. Sophomore Braden Thornberry had a huge fall campaign, picking up three wins individually and finishing with the #1 individual ranking according to Golfstat. He is getting a lot of help from Ben Wolcott, Noah West, and junior college transfer Kerry Sweeney. While the Rebels have not had as tough of a schedule as some, winning is winning, and I look for the Rebels to be contenders at the SEC Championship this spring.

2) Baylor

Many were wondering where Mike McGraw would end up after he won the 2015 NCAA Championship as Alabama’s assistant coach, and he fielded many high-D1 coaching offers before settling on Baylor. Since arriving in Waco, he has done a great job recruiting, quickly turning Baylor into a contender for the National Championship. The Bears finished the fall-season ranked 10th, and the ceiling is very high for the Bears for years to come. They are in the process of building a huge new on-campus practice facility, they have received key commitments from top-ranked junior players such as Ryan Grider, and are maximizing results from talented players such as Braden Bailey and Matthew Perrine. The Bears won their last event of the fall, The Royal Oaks Intercollegiate, by an astounding 32 shots over a strong field that included Houston, Michigan, Kent State, and New Mexico. The strength of their team is a balanced lineup,  evidenced by each player having a top-6 finish this fall.

3) Purdue

Jay Seawell’s assistant coaches at Alabama have gone on to do some great things across the country, and much like Mike McGraw at Baylor, Head Coach Rob Bradley has completely turned around Purdue. The facilities in West Lafayette are world-class, and have gotten even better this year with the opening of a second championship golf course, Ackerman-Allen, across the street from the acclaimed Kampen course. Coach Bradley’s biggest change has been in recruiting, where he has completely flipped the landscape in the state of Indiana, landing the state’s big recruits as well as some of the Midwest’s best. The Boilermakers have advanced to the NCAA finals in 2014 and 2016, barely missing in 2015 by losing in a playoff for the last spot to get out of regionals. While the Boilermakers have gotten off to a slow start this year (currently ranked 35th in the Golfweek Rankings), I see them turning it around and contending for the Big10 championship this year.

Questions for in the Spring:

1) Can the Illini freshmen keep it up?

Some thought the Illini would have a down year after the departure of All-Americans Thomas Detry and Charlie Danielson, but the pair of Freshman Michael Feagles and Bryan Baumgarten have done a great job of filling those shoes. With wins at the Wolf Run Intercollegiate, Olympia Fields/Fighting Illini Invitational, the Northern Intercollegiate, and East Lake Cup, the Illini have proved that they are still big-time National Championship contenders and the class of the Midwest.  The two freshmen have proven that they can go low on tough courses during high-profile events; Baumgarten fired a five-under 65 at Olympia Fields during the Olympia Fields Invitational, and Michael Feagles shot a six-under 66 at Isleworth during the Tavistock. The Illini keep producing great young players, and they look to be a factor at Rich Harvest Farms, where they’ve won before.

2) How much better can LSU get?

LSU has had a great fall, picking up wins at the Maui Jim Intercollegiate and the David Toms Intercollegiate. Sam Burns has stepped up his game to become one of the premier players in college golf, and he has a strong cast around him including Brandon Pierce and Luis Gage. They could be mentioned in the “Teams at the Top” section, but I am interested to see how they handle the addition of 2015 U.S. Junior Champion Philip Barbaree.  Barbaree graduated high school a semester early to join the Tigers, and it will be interesting to see if the young Freshman will be able to crack the lineup and have an impact.  Only two players remain from the 2015 lineup that won the National Championship, Brandon Pierce and Eric Ricard, so the balance between youth and experience will lead to some tough choices for Head Coach Chuck Winstead. This will make the battle for lineup spots more competitive, which I believe is always a positive for a team. Watch for the Tigers to make another run in match play this year.

3) Who could be the wild-card?

I don't think too many people had Oregon winning last year, even though it was at their home course. It seems there is at least one surprise team to make it into match play every year. So, here are a few sleepers that I think could make a deep run at Rich Harvest Farms this spring.

Kent State: I’m letting my MAC bias show a little bit here, but the Golden Flashes had a great fall. They were ranked in the top-10 for a good portion of the fall, and their two stars Chase Johnson and Ian Holt have really stepped up this year. With Volunteer Coach and British Open Champ Ben Curtis helping the team this year, I think Kent State has a chance to make match play like they did at Riviera in 2012.

Ole Miss: I just mentioned them on my teams on the rise, but Ole Miss is playing some great golf. With a 65-2 record this fall, Ole Miss is learning how to win, and they believe they can compete with the best.

Arizona State: This one is a little more out there, but stay with me. New coach Matt Thurmond has an almost entirely new lineup after the departure of Jon Rahm, Max Rotluff and Alberto Sanchez, and the impending loss of the ASU Karsten Course. That being said, Matt Thurmond has done a great job in coming in, setting a new culture with a lot of new players, and trying to develop a vision for the future of Arizona State Golf.  With a win at the Allister Mackenzie Invitational and a 3rd place finish at the Tavistock, the Sun Devils have shown that the new-look Arizona State team can compete. I look for them to continue to get better throughout not only this season but for years to come.

4) Will the #1 seed ever win the match play at NCAA’s?

It is starting to become more than a trend, and there are a few reasons why. First, a 72-hole stroke play championship is a lot of golf, and a lot of mental stress for the teams leading. For the team that ends up winning, they face a quick mental turnaround to get back up the next day ready for match-play to start. Secondly, the pressure is now on whatever team captures the championship, and they will not want to be the next one in line for this trend. Coaches and players are well aware of this fact, and it will be in the back of the minds of whatever team is playing with this distinction.

5) What is going on with the Longhorns?

The expectations at the start of the year were familiar ones for the Texas Longhorns with one of the most talented rosters in the country that should dominate the college golf landscape. Replacing Beau Hossler would be difficult, but not many teams have Doug Ghim, Gavin Hall, and Scottie Scheffler to carry the load. The questions lie in the back half of the lineup. Taylor Funk has struggled this fall, and Steven Chervonoy is still getting used to being in the lineup. This has put a lot of pressure on their “big 3,” and when one of them has had an off week it shows. They finished 7th at Olympia Fields, 9th at the Nike Collegiate Invitational, and 3rd at the East Lake Cup. In saying all that, they did have a great win at the Golf Club of Georgia Collegiate, highlighted by a final-round 63 by Gavin Hall. I am looking for Texas to come out and win a couple events early in the Spring and become a more consistent team that will look to get back to the final match at the NCAA Championship.  

6) Who will be in Oklahoma State’s lineup come June?

The team from Stillwater had a very good fall, however, they will have some lineup questions leading into the spring. Most teams struggle with a lack of depth, but that is not the case for Head Coach Alan Bratton. The Cowboys could very well field two teams that could make it to the NCAA Finals. This year, the Oklahoma State lineup has included 9 of the 10 players on their roster: Kristoffer Ventura (2016 Stillwater Regional Champion, WAGR: 9), Viktor Hovland (WAGR: 13), Stratton Nolen (2016 Big12 Champion, WAGR: 88), Zachary Bachau (WAGR: 76), Brendon Jelley (WAGR: 235), Sam Stevens (WAGR: 152), Nick Heinen (WAGR: 314), Hayden Wood (WAGR: 342), and Zach Olsen (WAGR: 273). Also, this lineup could have very well included Wyndham Clark, who transferred from Oklahoma State to Oregon over the summer. The Cowboys are currently ranked 5th on the Golfweek rankings and will be looking for their 12th NCAA title in program history at Rich Harvest Farms in June. It will be interesting to see who will be in the Cowboys lineup for their first event of the spring, the Amer Ari Invitational in Hawaii in early February.

7) Can Stanford show up at NCAA’s?

The Cardinal’s have had great regular seasons the past two years, only to lay an egg at the NCAA’s championships. In 2015, they came in ranked 8th after winning the PAC 12 Championship and finished 22nd a week after the women’s program at Stanford won the NCAA Championship. Last year, they were ranked in the top 5 after winning the PAC 12 Championship again and finished 27th at Eugene Country Club. At the end of the fall season this year, Stanford is ranked 8th and having another great year. Maverick McNealy continues to be outstanding, and Stanford has shown time and time again that they can develop players in Palo Alto. 

Highlights of 2017 Spring Schedule
Feb 2 - Feb 4      Amer Ari Intercollegiate
Feb 19 - Feb 21      Puerto Rico Classic
Feb 24 - Feb 26     The Hayt
Feb 27 - Mar 1     Querencia Cabo Collegiate
Mar 6 - Mar 8      Southern Highlands Collegiate
Mar 19 - Mar 21     Valspar Collegiate
Mar 19 - Mar 21     Linger Longer Invitational
Mar 30 - Apr 1     The Goodwin
Mar 31 - Apr 2     Mason Rudolph Championship
Apr 8 - Apr 9     Western Intercollegiate
Apr 14 - Apr 15     The Maxwell
Apr 15 - Apr 16     Boilermaker Invitational

 

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