College notebook: Dale delivers for North Florida

Sean Dale during the Isleworth Collegiate Invitational

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The hardest part was answering all the questions from the members at Jacksonville Golf & Country Club, from people associated with the University of North Florida, from friends and family. Everyone, it seems, wanted to know: “Why aren’t you out there with the team?” For Sean Dale, that was a complicated answer.

“It hurt to explain,” he said this week, “but it was something that was the best thing for me and the team.”

First, there was the injury. Last fall, during a routine training run, Dale landed awkwardly on his right leg, hyperextended his knee and suffered a deep bone bruise. The pain was so severe, it forced him to miss two events. Then there was his academics. “Not that I was ineligible,” Dale explained, “but it was borderline. I wasn’t going to graduate in four years, anyway, but I wanted to get my grades back and be able to step onto the golf course and not have to worry about it.”

So he redshirted last season, a decision that initially galled the former second-team All-American but, eventually, turned out to be a blessing. Healthy, in good academic standing and playing some of the best golf of his career, Dale is again the focal point of the Ospreys, who are the 10th-ranked team in the country heading into their final event of the fall, next week’s Amelia National (Fla.) Intercollegiate.

“It’s the strongest the team has ever been since the school has been here,” said Dale, a junior. “Two years ago, it felt we were just another team in tournaments. Now, we’re walking around and people are noticing us. There is an expectation that we’re going to play well when we go to tournaments. We’re scarier now.”

UNF came within a few strokes of advancing to match play at the 2009 NCAA Championship. But with Dale out of the lineup last year, the Ospreys took a step back and finished last among the 13 teams at the NCAA South Central Regional.

The turning point this year, however, might have come at last week’s Isleworth Collegiate, undoubtedly one of the top college events of the season. As the first round came to a close, UNF coach Scott Schroeder stood behind the 18th green and admired the massive white leaderboard. Texas was ahead, of course, but in second place: tiny North Florida.

“It was just a moment,” Schroeder said, “where you say, ‘Wow, we can play.’ We all thought we could play with those schools, but to play well and actually do it says a lot.”

How does that happen, and seemingly in only a few years? It starts with a solid nucleus, and UNF boasts a strong top of the lineup with Dale, Kevin Aylwin and Kevin Phelan, all of whom are ranked in the top 68 nationally. But it’s Dale, in particular, who is on pace for a breakout season. After spending his freshman year at Ole Miss, Dale transferred to UNF – in his hometown of Jacksonville – and immediately made an impact. In 2009-10, he medaled at the Wolf Run Intercollegiate, was named the Atlantic Sun Conference Player of the Year, then captured the Florida State Amateur later that summer.

“Sean is a kid who can compete with anyone, from a talent standpoint,” Schroeder said. “He brings a quiet confidence – he’s not an in-your-face guy – and when he competes, he expects to win.”

Dale hasn’t finished worse than 10th in three starts this season, with five of his nine rounds under par. His scoring average in those events: 71.56, which includes an 81 during a windswept second round at Isleworth, one of Florida’s most-difficult courses. His aspirations this season are not atypical for a college junior. He wants to win four or five tournaments. (Win out in the spring!) He wants to be a first-team All-American. (Well on his way.) He wants to make a run at the U.S. Amateur title. (Why not?)

“He wants to be the best there is,” Schroeder said. “If he does all the right things, we’re going to be talking about him as one of the best players in college golf.”

Then there is Dale’s other, less tangible goal.

“I want to put myself in a position that, at the end of the year, people will say, ‘Well, I guess Sean Dale is back,’ ” he said.

Three months into the season, he already is.

• • •

A TROJAN SWEEP: USC senior Steve Lim earned his first individual title Nov. 3 at the Gifford Collegiate, outdueling Patrick Cantlay down the stretch to win by one. Lim bogeyed his final two holes but still shot 11-under 202 (66-67-69) at CordeValle and helped propel the Trojans to their first team title of the season.

“It was a great victory for our program,” USC coach Chris Zambri said. “We all felt capable of having a week like this. It is great to go into the break with a win.”

Cantlay, meanwhile, continued his good vibes at CordeValle. Last month, he played the PGA Tour’s Fall Series event there on a sponsor exemption, during which he was paired the first two rounds with Tiger Woods. Cantlay made the cut and tied for 67th.

• • • 

HIGH ON THE HOGS: Arkansas coach Brad McMakin got plenty of good news this week. The school announced Nov. 1 that it had reached a contact extension with McMakin, through the 2015-16 season. In his first five seasons in Fayetteville, he has led the Razorbacks to four NCAA regional appearances and two NCAA Championship berths, including a runner-up finish in 2009. Arkansas is No. 6 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings, on the strength of four victories this fall. Another reason to celebrate: Nicolas Echavarria, the fifth-ranked junior in the class of 2012, told Golfweek that he has given a verbal commitment to Arkansas.

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