By RON BALICKI
The thought of leaving school a year early and turning professional weighed on his mind.
He had agents calling and watching his every move. He had manufacturers offering endorsement deals. He pondered every opportunity, accepting as much advice as possible.
In the end, D.J. Trahan decided what was best for him – and his team – was to return to Clemson University, and complete his senior year of eligibility, and earn his degree.
The tiebreaker in his decision turned out to be simple.
“I’m looking for an NCAA (team) title,” said Trahan, who was second in the final Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings last season. “We finished third last year and that was due to a poor third round. We were second the year before that. I think this year with what we have coming back, we have as good a chance as anyone to win it all.”
For Trahan, who declined to talk about any endorsement offers, having that “chance” gets his motivational juices flowing.
“I think D.J. loves college golf and his teammates and wants to get his degree,” said Clemson coach Larry Penley. “He told me he was in this (college) for the long haul. He said, ‘Besides, coach, I have some unfinished business to take care of.’ ”
You can bet Clemson will be in the hunt, not only at next spring’s NCAA Championship, but in every tournament this season.
Clemson enters the 2002-03 campaign as Golfweek’s No. 1 team. Trahan’s return was a big factor in that ranking, and the Tigers have four other starters back from a team that had 10 top-5 finishes. Clemson won the Ping/Golfweek Preview and tied for first at the NCAA East Regional.
Trahan is the marquee Tiger, but there are plenty of leading performers in Penley’s talent pool.
The list is led by junior Gregg Jones, who was a second-team All-American and finished 12th in the Golfweek/Sagarin Rankings. Together, Trahan and Jones give Clemson one of the best tandems in college golf.
“Potentially, we could be one of the best teams Clemson has ever had, and we’ve had some pretty darn good ones,” said Jones, who averaged 71.94, had four top-10 finishes and tied for 17th at the NCAAs. “I’m glad to see D.J. coming back. Not only is he a great player, but he’s a team leader as well.”
Also back are senior Ben Duncan, junior Matt Hendrix, who had top-10 finishes at the Monroe and Dogwood Invitationals this summer, and sophomore Martin Catalioto, who tied for sixth at the Pacific Coast Amateur.
Still, they’ll have a dogfight on their hands to keep a spot on the traveling squad. Hoping to crack the lineup will be sophomores Jack Ferguson, Brian Duncan and Stephen Poole, junior Michael Sims and freshman Nick Biershenk. Brent Delahoussaye transferred from South Carolina, but must sit out one year and is eligible as a junior next season.
Ferguson won the Birmingham National Invitational, and Biershenk won the South Carolina State Amateur Match Play Championship.
“It’s going to be very, very competitive for those top five spots,” said Penley. “We have a lot of talent in the lineup right now. I think everyone is really fired up to get the season started. I imagine our lineup will change a lot during the fall, and hopefully by spring we’ll settle in with a starting five.
“I think we have the potential to be really good, but there are a lot of other teams out there with equal potential. I think it’s going to be an interesting and exciting year in college golf, and I’m hoping the Tigers can play a major role in it.”
Trahan, of course, will be the key.
Last season, he posted eight top 5s, including three victories and three second-place finishes. He tied for eighth at the NCAA finals and finished the season with a 70.33 scoring average.
A member of the 2001 U.S. Walker Cup team and winner of the 2000 U.S. Amateur Public Links title, Trahan is No. 1 in the Golfweek/Titleist Amateur Rankings.
This year, he won the Azalea Invitational, the Monroe Invitational and the South Carolina State Stroke Play Amateur, tied for third at Sunnehanna, tied for 14th at the Porter Cup and tied for 45th in the Buy.com Tour’s BMW Charity Classic.
“Having D.J. back is a blessing,” said Penley. “I know I’m selfish, but I’m really happy he’s returning. He had a number of opportunities (to turn pro), and I know he really wrestled with his decision. The thing about D.J. is he’s not lacking in confidence, and that’s good. When you have that kind of an attitude, it filters down to the rest of the team. I think that will work as a positive for us.”
Penley realizes that with Clemson’s success last season, with all of his players returning and a No. 1 preseason ranking, the pressure will be on.
“Being No. 1 is awesome, but it’s something I think our guys deserve,” Penley said. “Of course, it makes our job even bigger now because we’ll go into the year with some big expectations. We’re going from being the hunter to the hunted.”
It’s a challenge Penley and his talented cast accept.