Transfers Barber, Hebert lead new-look Auburn

Auburn head coach Nick Clinard, right center looks over the scoreboard at the 2009 Gary Koch Intercollegiate at Old Memorial Golf Club in Tampa, Fla.

Auburn head coach Nick Clinard, right center looks over the scoreboard at the 2009 Gary Koch Intercollegiate at Old Memorial Golf Club in Tampa, Fla.

Men's Rankings »

RankNameSchoolRating
1Joey GarberGeorgia  68.65 
2Robby SheltonAlabama  68.65 
3Patrick RodgersStanford  68.71 
4Ollie SchniederjansGA Tech  68.85 
5Cameron WilsonStanford  69.10 

Men's Team Rankings »

RankNameRatingEvents
1Alabama 68.97 
2Georgia Tech 69.68 
3Georgia 69.68 
4Oklahoma State 69.77  10 
5California 69.86  11 

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Transferring to a different school is no small decision. It requires leaving behind friends and a comfortable home course and making seemingly endless phone calls about which credit hours will transfer and which won’t. It also could mean sitting out for a year and putting an impending pro career on hold.

But that’s how much sophomores Blayne Barber and Michael Hebert enjoy the leadership of Auburn head coach Nick Clinard.

Clinard, now in his second season at Auburn after leaving the University of Central Florida, has turned the Tigers into a top-10 contender, thanks in large part to the transfers of Barber (UCF) and Hebert (Florida State).

“I’ve said multiple times that I give him all the credit for where I’ve progressed to as a player,” said Barber, No. 12 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings and No. 13 in the Golfweek/amateurgolf.com World Amateur Rankings. “He’s a great coach and a great friend, and it certainly says a lot that we’d both follow him like that.”

BY THE NUMBERS

Auburn’s position in the past five season-ending Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings (and this year’s current ranking):

2010-11: 8*

2009-10: 35

2008-09: 63

2007-08: 17

2006-07: 29

2005-06: 27

  • *Through Feb. 28

Barber was with Clinard at UCF for his freshman campaign, helping lead the Knights to a 10th-place finish at the NCAA Championship in 2009. Barber finished T-7 as an individual at NCAAs and was named Conference USA Player of the Year. But when Clinard decided to take the Auburn job, Barber was close behind.

It meant a year on the sidelines for Barber, while Clinard got to work on improving a team that was No. 63 in the country the year before he took over. It didn’t take long to see the results: Auburn won the Schenkel Invitational and finished the 2009-10 season ranked No. 35.

The climb has continued this season. This week, the Tigers are ranked No. 8.

“I think we really made sure that the guys understood that we’re trying to win championships here at Auburn,” Clinard said. “They’ve worked hard. They’ve changed their workouts; they’ve changed the culture here.”

Auburn has finished first or second in its last five starts this season. However, only one of those five has been a victory. Most recently, the Tigers came up two shots short March 1 at the John Hayt Invitational, losing an eight-shot lead with 36 holes to play after Arkansas posted a 5-under final round on an incredibly windy day at Sawgrass Country Club.

“We had a great year last year, and we’ve had a great year this year, but I’m getting tired of finishing second,” Clinard said with a laugh. “It starts at home and with our attention to detail. It’s just little things, like playing the par 5s better, but we’re close.”

While the season’s head-to-head record has four painful losses on it – one for each of their second places – Clinard thinks the Tigers have turned a corner in the past year and a half.

“I might be a little biased, but I think we’re in great shape going forward,” he said. “I think Auburn’s on the rise and we’re ready to compete against the best teams in the country, which we think we’re one of. We have a little more to do, and it starts now.”

•••

Choi breaks through: At 5 feet 5 inches and 142 pounds, Bank Vongvanij of Florida doesn't cast much of a shadow. But with the season he's having, it's been large enough to cover teammate Phillip Choi. Until this week.

As Vongvanij has put together one of the most impressive seasons in college golf, earning a spot in Player of the Year conversations, Choi quietly has assembled five consecutive top 10s, recently breaking through at the windy John Hayt Invitational for his first career victory. Choi also finished regulation tied for first at the Gator Invitational before losing in a playoff to teammate Andres Echavarria.

“Phillip is playing just as good as I am, if not better,” Vongvanij said after the John Hayt. “He just plays so consistently and never hits it in a bad spot. Playing out here in the wind shows how solidly he hits the ball, because he’s still 7 under par while everyone else is struggling. His ballstriking is his strength, and that shows here.”

Choi, though, says the key to his success this spring has been increased attention to his putting, something he has worked hard on since last fall.

“In the fall, I think I got my ballstriking to the best it’s been in my life, and I knew that to start getting in contention, I needed to sharpen up my putting,” he said. “It’s getting better slowly, and it kind of clicked at the Gator. Coming into this week, I knew that if I could make putts, there was no reason I shouldn’t be in contention, and they finally started to fall.”

•••

Practice makes perfect: Because of a snowstorm in Fayetteville, Ark., Arkansas was unable to practice at home (outside of hitting balls into the snow and putting on carpet) before making the trip to California for the Battle at the Beach. Considering the rust that was lurking on his players, coach Brad McMakin decided to leave early and play an exhibition match with Long Beach State before the Feb. 13-15 tournament. Just in time, too.

“If we didn’t get out the day we did, we would have been snowed in with 20 inches,” freshman Will Pearson said.

Although the Razorbacks finished eighth out of 13 teams at the Battle at the Beach, the trip did provide them with a chance to hit balls and practice in good weather. Arkansas then won its next start, the John Hayt Invitational.

“We knew that finish in California was a fluke,” Pearson said, “But it was good to get out there and play and have some grass to hit off.”

•••

Can’t-miss Cantlay: With Vongvanij’s tie for 15th at the Hayt, the Player of the Year race got a bit more interesting March 1, when UCLA freshman Patrick Cantlay won the USC Intercollegiate.

Cantlay, who has finished first or tied for first three times this year, could become the first freshman to win the honor since USC’s Jamie Lovemark in 2007.

•••

A look ahead . . .

What: 26th annual Louisiana Classics

When: March 7-8

Where: Oakbourne Country Club, Lafayette, La.

Why it’s important: Coming off a third-place finish at the John Hayt, LSU gets right back into action. Standing in the way of the Tigers, No. 9 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings, will be No. 6 Illinois. Other top-50 teams in the field are Kent State (No. 38) and Tulsa (No. 44).

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