TOLEDO, Ohio – To the casual observer, when the NCAA Men’s Championship begins Tuesday, seeing UCLA among the 30 teams at Inverness Golf Club wouldn’t be much of surprise.
After all, the Bruins are the defending national champions and have played in the last six NCAA finals and 13 of the last 15.
The Bruins, however, have had to endure an arduous journey on their way to Toledo. In fact, for much of the season, it appeared the Bruins wouldn’t be around to defend their title as they loomed under the .500.
Considering its success in 2008, the team was optimistic when the season began last September.
UCLA lost three players to graduation – Kevin Chappell, Craig Leslie and Brandon Christianson. Chappell, who won the individual title and was a first-team All-American, was an especially key factor in the Bruins’ NCAA win at Purdue’s Kampen course.
Still, coach Derek Freeman had three starters coming back in Erik Flores, Phillip Francis and Lucas Lee. Waiting in the wings were Jason Kang (pictured with Freeman), James Lee and a pair of talented incoming freshmen in Gregor Main and Mexico’s Mauricio Azcue.
“Coming in we all were excited,” said Freeman. “I thought we had a great group of returning players and some outstanding freshmen. I was extremely optimistic about the season.”
Then things started to unravel.
Shortly after UCLA opened its season with a 12th-place finish at Olympia Fields, Lucas Lee informed Freeman he was leaving school and turning professional. A few weeks later Kang announced he, too, was leaving. Azcue did the same. James Lee, who won his first collegiate title the previous season, was still nursing a wrist injury he suffered over the summer and would end up red-shirting his scheduled senior season.
“It seemed like all of a sudden we lost a lot of experience and veteran players,” Freeman said. “It changed the whole make-up of the team.”
Freeman continually changed his starting lineup, trying to find the right combination. Meanwhile, the Bruins were finishing outside the top 10 – three times – or in the middle of the pack.
It wasn’t until April, when the Bruins finished fifth at Stanford’s U.S. Intercollegiate that they finally got over the .500 hump. They managed to stay there, despite a disappointing sixth at the Pac-10 Championship, and earning a spot in the NCAA Central Regional.
“There were some tough times, that’s for sure,” Freeman said. “Erik (Flores, a senior) was very frustrated at times because it was not what he was used to at UCLA. I think he started putting a lot of pressure on himself to pull the team out of it. And Phillip was going through some swing changes and not playing well for a while.
“We had some long talks and long team meetings. I told them that they just needed to prepare themselves every day and keep working as hard as they could to get better. They needed to take care of the little things and most important of all, to take pride in themselves, in UCLA, and in what we do,” Freeman said.
The Bruins put all those things together when they got to The Club at Olde Stone in Bowling Green, Ky., for the NCAA postseason.
“Going into regionals, I told the guys we were not going there just to finish in the top 5, but we were going there to win,” Freeman said.
UCLA shot a final-round-best 2-under 286 and overtook Washington to win the Central Regional by seven shots.
A solid all-around effort earned the Bruins the win, something Freeman has been looking for throughout the season. All five players finished among the top 35 with Francis (T-3) and Flores (6th) leading the way. Main tied for 11th, Alex Kim tied for 20th and Connor Driscoll tied for 34th.
“That was a huge positive for us,” said Freeman. “Not only was it our first win of the season, but now we’re here at Inverness and I think all the guys have a lot of confidence.”
Several challenges await UCLA at Inverness, however.
“It’s a hard golf course and one that has held a number of major championships,” Freeman said. “You’re going to have to play smart, be patient and execute the right shots.”
UCLA, trying to become the first team to win back-to-back NCAA titles since Houston in 1984-85, enters the championship 15th in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings and – even with its regional title – is not considered among the favorites.
Regardless, Freeman and his squad are excited to see how things unfold, especially with this year’s new format.
From Tuesday through Thursday, the field will compete in 54 holes of stroke play. The individual champion will be crowned upon completion of stroke play and the top eight teams will advance into match play. Quarterfinals and semifinals are set for Friday with the two remaining teams battling it out Saturday for the national title.
“I think there’s going to be so much excitement and electricity in the air, especially that third day with teams jockeying for that eighth spot and players battling for the individual championship,” Freeman said. “This is the exciting part of what we do.”
Don’t be surprised if the Bruins are part of the Elite Eight fighting for a national title those last two days.
After all, they’ve been surprising people all season long.