Roman Robledo arrived at Houston in the fall of 2011 with very little experience against top competition.
Things have changed since then.
Robledo summed up his progression simply, saying, “I got here not being able to play a proper flop shot, and now (my coaches) have me doing all kinds of crazy stuff that I never would have thought about doing.”
Robledo, a junior from Harlingen, Texas, is doing crazy things, all right – such as winning three tournaments in a row and helping end Alabama’s 11-tournament winning streak.
Robledo’s latest triumph came Saturday at the Border Olympics in Laredo, Texas, where he and the Cougars charged back from a 10-stroke deficit to top Oklahoma by a stroke.
Before that, Houston fended off a late charge from Alabama, No. 1 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings, to win the Querencia Cabo Intercollegiate.
“It’s been fun going out to these tournaments and showing everyone that we’re trying to bring back the Houston program,” said Robledo, whose Cougars are No. 10 in the nation, “and we’re doing a pretty good job of that right now.”
Robledo’s uncle Rene Rangel played at Houston in the early 1990s. Rangel helped persuade his nephew to play for the Cougars, a program that has won 16 NCAA championships but none since 1985.
Robledo has come a long way since then.
“My ballstriking has been phenomenal,” Robledo said. “I’ve been putting the ball really well. (Head coach Jonathan Dismuke) has helped me along the way with my short game, which has progressed like night and day. If it wasn’t for these coaches (including associate head coach Chris Hill), my short game would not be anything close to what it is now. I’m fortunate to have them. Everything is just clicking.”
Said Dismuke: “He didn’t play very much junior golf, so he had some learning to do as far as managing his game and improving his skill set top to bottom. He’s much more of a complete player now.
“If he keeps improving at the rate he’s improving, he has Tour-quality ability. He has good speed, a good skill set and a good understanding of what he needs to do to get better.”
But, at some point, Robledo had to prove to himself that he could win. That moment came in 2013 when Robledo and the Cougars won the Conference USA Tournament, beating out the likes of SMU’s Bryson Dechambeau and Mario Clemens and Central Florida’s Greg Eason.
“Coming in, I knew that I was a good ballstriker and I could hit the ball pretty far,” Robledo said. “I just didn’t have the belief that I could actually win in college events. After that, I knew I was good enough. . . . It was a turning point for all of us. We believed we were turning this program into something great.”
Dismuke said Robledo can drive the ball with anyone in college golf, but the difference this year has been in his short game.
“He’s had a really good semester. I’m so proud of him performing the way he did at (the Querencia Cabo Intercollegiate) because (Cabo Querencia Golf Club) really doesn’t fit his strong suit,” Dismuke said. “It is really tight and narrow off the tee and forces everyone to hit in the same areas and play from there. Roman’s strength is that he drives the ball extremely well, so it took driver out of his hands and made him play from where everybody else plays from. For him to have that performance against that field was remarkable.”
The crown jewel of Houston’s winning streak is its triumph over Alabama.
“Any time you can have the No. 1 team in a tournament and you play against them . . . they’re your main target,” said Robledo, who has improved to No. 20 in the Golfweek rankings. “Our coach has always told us to never put anyone on a pedestal and to go out and play our game. That did a lot for us. We didn’t put them above us. We felt like we were equals, along with everyone in the tournament.”
Houston nearly blew a five-stroke lead in the final day of the tournament, with Alabama cutting the deficit to one stroke during the final stretch.
“The nice thing was that I didn’t have cellphone service down there (to check scores),” Dismuke said. “I was just enjoying the scenery. I heard we built a nice lead, so I wasn’t sure what was going on. . . . It wasn’t until I got the scorecards in that I realized it was a little closer.
“They say ignorance is bliss. In that case, it was definitely bliss.”
Robledo’s buddies know him as the “Big Rome,” and his coaches know him as a laid-back student-athlete who can turn up the intensity at the right moment.
Opponents who have seen Robledo this year know him as a four-time winner, the owner of a 70.86 stroke average and the man behind 15 rounds of par or better.
For those who don’t know him as a threat on the course, well, like Dismuke said, ignorance is bliss.