FSU’s Jones defends decision to play at USF

Florida State senior Drew Kittleson during the 2011 SunTrust Gator Invitational

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DADE CITY, Fla. – Florida State didn’t win the USF Invitational on Sunday, but the Seminoles picked up something better: Hope. A measure of redemption. And, though coach Trey Jones won’t boast about it, certainly some validation.

For the record, Middle Tennessee State completed its runaway victory at Lake Jovita Resort. The Blue Raiders, No. 58 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings, led wire-to-wire in shooting a 26-under 838 for three breezy days on the South Course. It was MTSU’s fourth victory in six years here.

MTSU’s Hunter Green shot 11-under 205 to win the individual race. It’s the second college title for Green, a junior from Dayton, Tenn., who won the 2009 Aldila Scenic Invite.

For Florida State, this tournament represents a turning point. The Seminoles, ranked No. 48, finished runner-up to improve their record to 50-51-1 and put their postseason goals into sharper focus. College golf’s legislative bogeyman, the “.500 rule” that bans teams with losing head-to-head records from a regional bid, can step back into the shadows – for now, at least. As FSU prepares to host its Seminole Invitational next week in Tallahassee, there’s new life on a team that made it to last year’s match-play semifinals at the NCAA Championship.

The fact that the Seminoles were even here was controversial. Jones pulled his team before last week’s John Hayt Invitational in Ponte Vedra Beach. He said his squad was fatigued from consecutive events in Hawaii and Florida and needed a short break. Jones asked USF first-year coach Chris Malloy, who had been an assistant at FSU, about a spot. The fact that FSU entered the USF Invitational 18 victories below the minimum needed to be postseason eligible was no more than a minor consideration, Jones said.

“I needed to do what I thought was best for Florida State,” Jones said. “I met with my athletic director and some of the people in this profession that I trust, and I decided that, while it’s probably not a good thing for me to do personally – because I knew that there would be some people questioning what I did or the reasons why – but the only people that I need to answer to are those guys over there,’’ he said, pointing to his players as they were gathered around the 18th green. “I feel like my job was to stand up in front of them and make the decision that I think is best for this golf team.”

It’s hard to argue with the result. FSU is back near .500 and preparing to play at home as the meaty part of its schedule awaits.

“I don’t want to discredit this field,” Jones said of the USF Invitational, which had only five other teams – North Texas (26), Central Florida (32), MTSU (58), Jacksonville State (74) and Florida Gulf Coast (82) – among the top 100 in the Golfweek/Sagarin ranking. “If we don’t play well, anybody will beat you. So, that wasn’t it, as much as people think. We needed another week off; that helped us a lot. We had played back-to-back. We went to Hawaii and Florida and played two tournaments in 10 days and (the prospect of having two weeks off) was not something very good for our psyche. That was a hard decision, but I stand behind it.”

In the fourth year of the .500 rule in men’s college golf, this was only the second high-profile team struggling to win that pulled out of an event. Oregon’s Casey Martin opted not to play the recent Battle at the Beach.

North Florida coach Scott Schroeder was diplomatic in talking about Jones’ decision to bypass the Hayt, annually one of college golf’s deepest fields. However, he said he probably will send a contract to invitees to next year’s Hayt, with a financial penalty for an eleventh-hour withdrawal, likely of $5,000 or more. He said he has not decided whether FSU will be extended an invitation.

Ultimately, a financial penalty probably is where the college game is headed, to counter any .500-rule maneuvering, regardless of intentions.

“It’s not really our choice,’’ said FSU’s Brooks Koepka, a junior from Wellington, Fla., who tied for fourth at USF. “We’re not afraid to play anybody.”

Teammate Drew Kittleson, a senior from Scottsdale, Ariz., who closed with a tournament-best 6-under 66 to finish third at USF, used a football analogy for perspective.

“Nobody asks our starting quarterback if he wants to play the College of Charleston in the first week, but when he plays Oklahoma in the third week, he’s ready,’’ said Kittleson, the runner-up in the 2008 U.S. Amateur who has played in the Masters and U.S. Open. “Since I’ve been here, we’ve played such a grueling schedule.”

Cincinnati coach Doug Martin, whose Bearcats finished toward the bottom of the USF field, gives Jones the benefit of any doubt.

“You have to make the decision that’s in the best interest of your program,” said Martin, a former Oklahoma All-American who spent a decade on the PGA Tour before a back injury ended his playing career. “Once you play the fall, you’ve got to do what’s necessary to get into position for the postseason. . . . I’m not in Trey’s shoes. I support Trey. Koepka and Kittleson deserve to play in the NCAA Tournament.”

Thanks to a judgment call by their coach, that looks like much more of a possibility than it did a week ago.

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