2001: College - Back for more
University of Florida men’s coach Buddy Alexander and Gator football coach Steve Spurrier have a number of things in common.
Both love golf and play quite well, particularly Alexander, winner of the1986 U.S. Amateur.
Both are very successful at what they do, having won national championships. Spurrier led the Gators to the title in 1996, while Alexander has two NCAA crowns –1993 and most recently last spring.
Going into the new football season, Spurrier’s team earned the No. 1 spot in the Associated Press’ preseason rankings.
Alexander has matched him. Coming off an 18-shot victory and a 26-under-par score at the NCAA Championship at Duke Golf Club in Durham, N.C., last spring, Florida has gained No. 1 billing in Golfweek’s 2001-02 preseason rankings.
“I think it’s great,” said Alexander. “I don’t know if we should be there, but I guess we’ll find out. I do know there are a number of teams that are right up there with us. When you look at it now, there are a lot of teams you figure can challenge for the national championship. I just hope we are one of those come next May.”
And the Gators should be, with five of their top six players from last season returning.
Topping the list is junior Ben “Bubba” Dickerson, a third-team All-American last year who really came into his own this summer. Dickerson, who tied for 11th at the NCAA, tied for sixth at the Northeast Amateur, won the Western Amateur, where he also was 72-hole qualifying medalist, and rallied from 5 down to win the U.S. Amateur.
“I think we have the potential to maybe win (NCAA) again,” said Dickerson. “I had a really good summer and hopefully it will carry over (into college season). It should be fun.”
Also back are seniors Ben Banks and Camilo Benedetti, an honorable mention All-American; junior Jordan Code; and sophomore Camilo Villegas, a first-team All-American and the Golf Coaches Association of America Freshman of the Year. Villegas advanced to the Sweet 16 at the U.S. Amateur before losing to Dickerson.
Other team members are junior Ricky Hooper, senior Chris Zeller, sophomores Robert Litsey and Dalton Melnyk, and incoming freshmen Butler Melnyk (Dalton’s brother), Craig Trahan, David Cooper and Dwight Rogers. In addition, the Gators are getting Duke Butler, who has transferred from Texas A&M where he was a starter as a freshman last season, and Finland’s Arie Savolainen, a transfer from Brevard Community College who was a member of the Finnish National Team and made match play at this year’s British Amateur.
The lone loss from the starting lineup, though, is a big one. Nick Gilliam completed his eligibility as he won the NCAA title by three strokes with a 12-under 276.
“I’m very optimistic,” said Alexander. “We have a seasoned group and I’m hoping a year older ought to make them better. We lost a great leader in Nick Gilliam. Someone is going to have to step up fill his shoes, all size 14C of them. We still have a few question marks, but certainly fewer than we had going into last year.
“We certainly will have a lot of depth this season and it should be fun wrestling around with it. The addition of Duke and Ari will give us more experience, and with our freshmen we should have some good competition within, and I think that can only be helpful.”
Last season, the Gators had 12 top-10s, including four victories and a pair of seconds, and finished fourth in the final Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings.
At the NCAA Championship, they shot closing rounds of 277 and 275 and by midway through the final round there was little doubt that everyone else was playing for second.
Now, Florida will be the team that the rest of the country sets its sights on.
“We can’t worry too much about that. I mean, what are they going to do, put a bull’s-eye on our backs?” Alexander said.
“I don’t think we’ll feel a lot of pressure (as defending NCAA champs), at least as far as our guys coming back. They know it’s a whole new season, a start-over situation.
“The new guys coming in may not know what to expect and maybe they’ll feel they have to live up to being defending champions. I guess I’ll find out real quick if they feel any pressure.”
Last season, Alexander said the Gators “kept climbing the ladder of next best, so to speak,” behind Georgia, Clemson and Georgia Tech. He said it wasn’t until Florida finished third at the NCAA East Regional and beat the Big 3 in the process that his Gators realized just how good they were.
That confidence carried over into the NCAA Championship, where it paid a big dividend.
Now, it’s time to see if that confidence grows and follows Alexander and Florida into the new season.
One thing is certain, there won’t be any sneaking up on anybody. The Gators are for real. They have gone from the hunters to the hunted.