Hot Springs, Va.
Put down the telephone please, that’s not a typo you saw two pages back listing results from the 107th NCAA Division I Men’s Championship at the venerable Cascades Course at The Homestead.
Yes, that’s California at No. 1, a team whose senior co-captain, Scott Carlyle, carries a 3.95 GPA in civil engineering and whose coach, 25-year veteran Steve Desimone, has done everything short of running bake sales just to keep the Bears afloat. That team listed at T-11, Georgia State, is another little ant that could move a rubber tree plant. Upon taking the wheel for his rookie season, coach Matt Clark, a bespectacled little fellow who doesn’t look old enough to drive, was told he was inheriting the fifth-best team in the state of Georgia. He led his Panthers to their best NCAA finish in history.
We’d like to tell you there’s a new sheriff in town on the NCAA golf front, but that wouldn’t be totally accurate. In truth, there are several new sheriffs, all gunning for longtime powers such as Arizona, Florida and Oklahoma State. Somewhere between Cal and Georgia State, in eighth place, you’ll find a school – Kentucky, U. of – known a little more for its roundball than what it does with a golf ball. But at the NCAA Championship, the ’Cats performed well enough through 54 holes to play in the final group on the final day.
Kentucky? Contending at the NCAA golf finals? Why, you’d think the ’Cats would have a better shot at winning hockey’s Frozen Four. Though they endured a dismal last day at the Cascades (shooting 303, their second-worst round of the spring, and fell from second to eighth), it was no fluke these ’Cats played last group, last day. They’re the real meow.
Oh, and heed this warning: With four juniors who can really play and a talented sophomore at home expected to regain his academic eligibility in the fall, they’ll be back. That’s right: Kentucky. The school that finished dead last at the SEC Championship as recently as 2000 and 2001. The program that hadn’t teed it up in a final round of the NCAAs since 1947, when for all we know, their players used gutta perchas.
This is what college golf has come to, and you know what? It’s great. No longer are there a finite number of blue-chippers to be divided among only a handful of schools with the long, stuffy pedigrees. Here’s a toast to parity. College golf overall is the richer for it.
“I think it’s been a little harder for the Floridas and Oklahoma States to get all the good players,” said Kentucky third-year coach/miracle worker Brian Craig. “They can get a lot of them, sure, but they can’t get all of them. And that’s allowed some of these other programs to get some good ones and develop some young ones, and that’s produced an awfully competitive situation in Division I golf, which makes it more fun – makes it even better.”
These UK ’Cats are basically a team of John Dalys clad in Kentucky blue, a grip-it-and-rip-it college version of the long-hitting Pinnacle Posse. For a little perspective, consider junior Matt Wells, who hits it oh, about 290 off the tee . . . but quickly notes with a smile that three of his teammates “hit it about 20 yards past me.”
Bigger shoulder turn? More width in the backswing? Actually, Wells said Kentucky’s power secret is something a little less scientific. “Must be something in the water,” he shrugs.
The most telling scene at the Homestead was the tee box at the third hole, a 290-yard, uphill par 4 that bends gently to the right, framed by tall trees. Most every team in the field played the hole by laying up with a shot of about 170 yards off the tee. Those players then would put their bags on their shoulders and amble up the fairway. Of course, with players in the group ahead still on the green, Kentucky’s players never budged from the tee. One by one, they stood alone, waiting, waiting, waiting. Once the green cleared, drivers were unsheathed, and with five almighty whacks! tee shots were launched toward the flagstick.
Wells turned around a bogey-bogey start in a third-round 68 by knocking a drive on the third green and making a 40-footer for eagle. Length isn’t everything, but in golf, it does create pretty good theater. The ’Cats played the 513-yard, par-5 17th one day in even par, making a 9 to go along with eagles by Wells and team leader John Holmes, both of whom posted top-8 finishes.
The Law of Daly is hit it long, and people will take notice. Likewise, play well, put up good scores, and people have to take notice. One longtime rules official saw Kentucky’s name on the leaderboard and muttered, “I remember when Kentucky couldn’t play dead.” That no longer is the case. On top of its best SEC finish (fifth) in nearly 20 years, Kentucky went out and won the Central Region (where Holmes and Brandon Waldrop finished 1-3) and was one Cal-like round away from victory at the NCAA finals. It’s a pretty big “if,” no doubt, but amid the team’s last-day disappointment, it was clear the players and their energetic coach know they’re building something special. Three years ago, Kentucky didn’t even have a full-time coach.
“Brian has exceeded the expectations of a lot of people in Kentucky,” said Mitch Barnhart, Kentucky’s athletic director. “Now it’s a front page story in a lot of our sports sections, and it’s making the news at night. For people to talk about Kentucky golf in that light . . . well, it’s really special.”
Adds Holmes, a first-team All-American, “People know who we are now, so maybe we’ll get a little more respect. My first year, we were the laughingstock of the SEC. We didn’t win (the NCAAs) this time, but I think we’ll definitely take something out of this. We could be tough to handle next year.”
More than any other player, Holmes closely studied Cal’s happy victory celebration, planting the tiny seed that perhaps he’ll witness such a festive revelry in the arms of his own teammates next spring.
“When I took over, I never would have said, ‘Hey, in three years we’d be sitting right here,’ ” admits Craig. “But being around these guys, knowing their character and skills, I’m not shocked at all. I’m proud and I’m happy, and I don’t take it for granted. They’re a pretty talented bunch, and they believe in themselves. That’s the best part.”
The Kentucky Wildcats. Golf. Believers.