Spring is in the air – well, in some parts of the country, at least.
Next week, the men’s spring college season will kick off for a host of teams as the march to the NCAA postseason continues. The opening three-tournament swing will stretch from Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., to the desert in Tucson, Ariz., and all the way to Kona, Hawaii.
Time to scrape off the winter rust and get back into competitive mode.
Two of the early spring stops will be played Jan. 31-Feb. 1 as the University of Arizona hosts its annual Arizona Intercollegiate at Arizona National Golf Club, and Jacksonville University hosts its invitational at the TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course.
These are followed by the annual Amer Ari Invitational hosted by Hawaii-Hilo at the Waikoloa Beach Resort, another long-standing early spring event.
The JU Invitational features six teams that finished the fall season among the top 50 in the Golfweek/Sagarin Rankings. Topping that list is No. 3 Florida. The Gators, led by No. 2-ranked Bank Vongvanij, No. 17 Tyler McCumber and No. 44 Phillip Choi, finished in the top three in each of their fall starts, including a victory at Olympia Fields.
They’ll be taking on the likes of Wake Forest (23), East Carolina (39), Liberty (41), Clemson (45) and North Florida (47). Also in the field are East Tennessee State, Idaho, Jacksonville State, Mercer, Georgia State, James Madison, Old Dominion, Charleston Southern and host Jacksonville.
No doubt the biggest battle will be against the course, a brutal test that challenges the best players in the world each year at the PGA Tour’s “fifth major,” The Players Championship.
No. 13 California and No. 14 San Diego State top the field in Arizona and are the early favorites. Cal won twice in the fall and is the defending champion, while San Diego State was 3-for-3 in top-3 finishes, including a victory at the Tucker.
In addition, keep an eye on Pepperdine (37), New Mexico (60), UNLV (62), Pacific (73), Fresno State (80), UC-Irvine (89) and BYU (90).
For the host Wildcats (87), this could be a crucial tournament. In four fall starts, they didn’t have a top-5 showing, and finished 15th at Isleworth. Arizona usually plays well on its home course and definitely will need to this time around as the team begins the spring with an 11-31 overall won-loss record and needs some wins if it hopes to reach the .500 mark needed to be eligible for the NCAA postseason.
Heading west to the Big Island where players will do battle on the black, lava rock-laden Waikoloa Kings and Beach courses, it will be a Nos. 1-2 shoot-out as top-ranked UCLA and No. 2 Oklahoma State head an impressive field.
The Bruins, led by freshman Patrick Cantlay (4), a semifinalist at last year’s U.S. Amateur, Gregor Main (12), Pontus Widegren (16) and Mario Clemens (25), had a pair of second-place showings and a victory, at the Gifford, in the fall.
The Cowboys are led by top-ranked Peter Uihlein, the reigning U.S. Amateur champion, Kevin Tway (5) and Morgan Hoffmann (36). OSU won twice and had two other top-5 finishes in four fall starts.
These two will have plenty of competition as eight other teams are ranked among the top 55, including Georgia Tech (5) and Texas (7). Then there’s Texas Tech (21), Washington (24), USC (32), Oregon State (35), Arizona State (38) and TCU (52).
This one should prove most interesting, and if the wind kicks up – as it has been known to do during this tournament – it could get not only challenging, but frustrating as well.
Yes, there’s a long spring season ahead, but this opening week should provide pretty good insight into what we might expect in the months leading up to the six NCAA regional tournaments and the NCAA finals at Oklahoma State’s home course, Karsten Creek.