BURLINGTON, Iowa – Head coach Jerry Haas preaches perspective to his team, making sure it remembers that this game, as stressful as it is, is only a small part of their life. “It may seem like life or death,” he said, “but it’s not.”
Such an outlook will help Wake Forest as it tries to catch Missouri on Tuesday at the Golfweek Conference Challenge at Spirit Hollow Golf Club. The Demon Deacons will start the final round at 1-under 575 (294-281), three shots behind Missouri, which has fired consecutive 286s. The Tigers have been under par in all five rounds this season, winning the season-opening Turning Stone Intercollegiate before arriving at Spirit Hollow.
The past two seasons have been fruitful for Wake Forest alums on the PGA Tour, as Bill Haas won the 2011 FedEx Cup and Webb Simpson claimed this year’s U.S. Open. The Wake Forest men’s team, though, hasn’t won since February 2010.
A victory this week would help one of college golf’s most storied programs return to prominence. The Deacons were 60th in last season’s Golfweek rankings, and they haven’t qualified for an NCAA Championship since 2009.
“I think we have big expectations,” senior Charlie Harrison said. “It’s tough because on one hand, we do feel like we play in the shadow of guys like Webb, Bill, Curtis (Strange), Lanny (Wadkins) and Arnold (Palmer), but at the same time … we have to know this is the best four years of our life, and if we’re happy on the course, the rest of it kind of takes care of itself.
“That’s how you build back.”
Thomas Birdsey is Wake Forest’s top individual through two rounds at Spirit Hollow. He is tied for fourth at 4-under 140 after shooting consecutive 70s, three shots behind Missouri’s Jace Long. Long, who opened 68-69, has shot in the 60s in all five rounds this season. He is 22 under in five rounds after a 10-shot individual victory at Turning Stone, the eighth win of his career.
Long has a one-shot lead over Tulsa’s Chris Worrell (71-67) and is two shots ahead of Iowa’s Steven Ihm (68-71). Long begins PGA Tour Q-School’s pre-qualifying stage the day after the Golfweek Conference Challenge ends.
Birdsey credits an improved short game for his high standing on the leaderboard. He estimates he has missed 10 greens in the first two rounds but has made just three bogeys. He chipped close to make birdies on the par-5 second and 10th holes on Monday, and hit a 30-yard flop shot to a short-sided pin close on the par-3 12th hole.
“I haven’t hit too many balls this year,” said Birdsey, who has focused on his short game in practice. “It’s starting to pay off.” He said he averaged 14.7 greens in regulation last year, but his scoring average “wasn’t anywhere near where I needed it to be” because of his struggles around the green.
Freshman Davis Womble (74-69) is tied for eighth place in his collegiate debut, as is Harrison (73-70). The long-hitting Harrison is 9 under in the two times he has played Nos. 1-4 at Spirit Hollow, making one par, two eagles and five birdies. He eagled the par-5 second hole both times.
Wake Forest had four players shoot a combined 22 under in the team’s first qualifying round of the season. It opened the season with a sixth-place finish at the Carpet Capital, one shot behind a tie for fourth. Wake Forest’s 281 Monday was the second-lowest round of the day. All five players shot par or better.
“If life is good, you play better,” Haas said. So far, so good for Wake Forest at the Golfweek Conference Challenge.