Arnond Vongvanij’s classmates at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., often started their practice sessions on the driving range. It was located next to the practice area’s parking lot, forcing students to resist the temptation to pound balls before making their way to the chipping area. It’s like asking a dieter to pass the dessert tray en route to the salad bar. Most juniors would rather rip drivers than grind on the chipping green.
Vongvanij was the exception.
“When we’d show up to practice in the afternoons, a lot of guys would walk to the range. He’d go putt and chip,” classmate Peter Uihlein said. “It’s obviously paid off for him.”
Vongvanij, at 5 feet, 5 inches and 142 pounds, has never been a long hitter but is No. 2 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings thanks to a strong short game.
He has won two of his past three starts, including a victory at the prestigious Isleworth Intercollegiate, losing only in a playoff at the Gator Invitational. He also was runner-up to Oklahoma State’s Uihlein, the U.S. Amateur champion and top-ranked college player in the country, at the season-opening event at Olympia Fields. In five starts during the 2010-11 season, Vongvanij hasn’t finished out of the top 5. His head-to-head record of 340-5-4 is the best in the country.
He’s playing to the potential he displayed as one of the nation’s best junior players.
Vongvanij, a two-time AJGA first-team All-American, struggled the past couple of seasons as he tried to hit the ball farther. The Florida senior abandoned that quest last season, and it’s paying off.
“When I tried to hit it farther, I hit a bunch of hooks,” Vongvanij said. “It’s hard to score when you’re in the trees all the time. It took me a good year (to get back).”
Vongvanij, a Hawaii native who lived in Thailand before enrolling at IMG, is so skilled at the short game that he’d often chip one-handed in practice, but he still beat his IMG classmates at contests. Uihlein never accepted that challenge. “I was too afraid I’d lose,” he said.
Florida’s next event is the John Hayt Invitational, which begins Sunday at Sawgrass Country Club in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. Vongvanij finished 65th at last year’s Hayt after shooting 80 in two of the three rounds. But Vongvanij still was finding his game at that point. He was 85th in last year’s Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings. Vongvanij’s sophomore year was his worst; he played in only one event.
“His confidence was way down, and his ballstriking was subpar,” Florida head coach Buddy Alexander said.
Isleworth may be Vongvanij’s most impressive victory this season. The event has one of the year’s strongest fields. The 7,544-yard golf course wouldn’t seem to play to his strengths. He’s relatively short (about 280 yards off the tee) and hits it low. Alexander compares Vongvanij with another former Gator, two-time Tour winner Brian Gay, who uses superior wedge play to succeed. “He’s one of the best I’ve ever had,” Alexander said of Vongvanij’s short game.
And now he’s one of the best in the country.
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500 and counting: Scroll deep into the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings and you’ll see this impressive stat: Binghamton’s Jake Katz, ranked No. 165, has exactly 500 head-to-head victories, more than any other player in the top 500 of the Golfweek/Sagarin rankings. Katz’s record is 500-11-6. He won the Cornell Invitational, was runner-up in three other events and placed third at the Big 5 Invitational. His worst showing this year is eighth at the Adams Cup.
Katz, who won the 2010 Buffalo District Amateur, has shown he can play against the big boys, as well. He finished 10th at last year’s Porter Cup after holding the 54-hole lead, and finished ninth at the Eastern Amateur.
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Back in action: Oklahoma State impressively won its first event this spring, the Amer Ari Invitational, even though U.S. Amateur champion Peter Uihlein didn’t travel with the team. Uihlein returned to the Cowboys’ lineup for their next event, the Puerto Rico Classic, yet the Cowboys finished third. Interesting, yes, but it wasn’t Uihlein’s fault.
Uihlein finished fourth in Puerto Rico thanks to a final-round 65. Even more impressive is that it was Uihlein’s worst finish for the Cowboys this season. In three previous events, he won at Olympia Fields and finished runner-up twice.
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Short shots: Jason Millard’s final-round 63 Feb. 22 at the Mobile Bay Intercollegiate set a school record and bested the course record at Magnolia Grove Crossings by three shots. Millard started the final round tied for the lead and won by seven. . . . Missouri shot 23-under 841 to win the Washington State Snowman Getaway by 25 shots over Idaho. Missouri swept the top three spots in the individual standings, with Emilio Cuartero shooting 10-under 206 to win by five shots. Cuartero, a Spaniard, is a former British Boys champion.
A look ahead . . .
What: John Hayt Invitational
When: Feb. 27-March 1
Where: Sawgrass Country Club, Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.
Why it’s important: The Hayt field is highlighted by No. 3 Florida and the Gators’ player-of-the-year candidate, Arnond Vongvanij. No. 8 Auburn, led by Blayne Barber, and LSU, with recent Jones Cup champ John Peterson, also will be at Sawgrass. Host North Florida is the defending champion.
What: Golfweek Spring Division II Invitational
When: Feb. 27-March 1
Where: Reunion Resort, Davenport, Fla.
Why it’s important: Some of the nation’s best NCAA Division II teams converge in the Orlando area. One team to watch is Abilene Christian, led by Alex Carpenter, who’s scheduled to return to Orlando later in March to play in the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Carpenter earned his invitation by winning the Southern Amateur. The Wildcats also have Tyler Sheppard, who made the second round of match play at last year’s U.S. Amateur.