Entering the 2001-02 college season, the skinny on Clemson was the Tigers would struggle a little through most of the fall, but by late spring would come around and become a solid, NCAA-caliber team.
After losing three players to graduation, including first-team All-Americans Lucas Glover and John Engler, coach Larry Penley had good reason to be concerned, especially early on.
As they opened the season with a ninth place – out of 15 teams – finish in early September at The Ridges tournament in Tennessee, the Tigers appeared to be on the track most felt they would ride in the fall.
But last week, Clemson landed on the right track.
In one of the most exciting finishes in the 13-year history of the Ping/Golfweek Preview tournament, Clemson junior D.J. Trahan, playing in the last group, drained an 18-foot birdie putt on the final hole to lift the Tigers to a one-stroke victory Sept. 30 at the Ohio State Scarlet Course.
Clemson, the leader after each of the first two rounds, closed with a 7-over 291 for a 10-over 862 and edged Atlantic Coast Conference rival Wake Forest, which finished with a 2-under 282 for 863.
Texas was another shot back at 864, followed by host Ohio State at 867.
Wake Forest junior Brent Wanner shot even-par 71 to go with his rounds of 69-70 and captured medalist honors with a 3-under 210 over the 7,236-yard layout.
Sharing second place at 211 were Wake teammate Bill Haas, Trahan and Ohio State’s Doug Wade.
“This course really suits my game,” said Wanner, who had four birdies and four bogeys his final round. “It’s a long course and I’m a fairly long hitter. The key this week for me was I really got my putter going. I made a lot of big putts.”
For Penley, the victory came as a surprise.
“We have three guys who are new, so coming into the season I really didn’t know what to expect,” he said. “When we led after the first round, I figured no matter what happened this would be a great learning experience. But we hung in there all the way, especially (final round). We made some bogeys coming in, but Gregg (Jones) and D.J. played solid down the stretch and pulled us through.”
Going into the final round, Clemson, at 3 over, held a two-stroke lead over Florida and was four better than Georgia. Wake Forest was 10 back and Texas 12 behind.
The Tigers maintained a lead throughout the final 18 holes, but when Wake Forest, playing in the grouping in front, finished and posted 11 over, all eyes went to Clemson as Florida and Georgia had knocked themselves out of the running.
Clemson made a couple of bogeys coming in and climbed to 10 over with the final two groups still on the course. Jones, who finished with 72 and tied for ninth overall at 1-over 214, parred the final two holes to keep the Tiger hopes alive and Trahan parred 17.
That set the stage. At the 440-yard, par-4 18th, it was simple. If Trahan makes birdie, Clemson wins; a par ties; a bogey or worse and Wake Forest was the champion.
Trahan’s hit his tee shot “about 15 yards left of where I wanted it,” but he launched it 310 yards. It put him in a bunker 30 yards from the pin. He blasted to 18 feet right of the hole.
“I didn’t know the situation (as he walked to the green), but I knew the putt was important by the way the guys (teammates) were twitching over there on the side,” Trahan said. “I read a little left-to-right break and felt good over the putt. It wasn’t until it went in that I found out what it meant for the team.”
Added Penley, “Winning this tournament is great and having D.J. make that birdie putt on the last hole made it really special. I don’t think there’s another player I’d rather have over that putt. D.J. is special and he knows how to win.”
Clemson, one of only two teams (the other being Oklahoma State) to have played in all 13 Previews, won this event for the second time. It also claimed the title in 1991 at Poppy Hills Golf Club in Pebble Beach, Calif.
“This is a great tournament to win because you’re always playing a good, tough golf course and against the best teams in the country,” Penley said. “We still have a lot of work to do, but winning here will definitely go a long way with our guys, especially on the confidence side.”
The Ping/Golfweek Preview is held annually each fall at the site of the following spring’s NCAA Division I Championship.