• • •
BURLINGTON, Iowa – Chuck Winstead was mid-thought, searching for the right words to describe the huddle of young men standing behind him, when a stranger laid her hand on his arm.
Volunteers like this woman are the unseen force behind major college tournaments, with eyes and ears that catch club tosses and short tempers. She had none of those to relay to Winstead, instead providing the words he hadn’t yet said.
“Every inch a gentleman,” she said of each member of Winstead’s LSU squad, which had just lapped the field at the Golfweek Conference Challenge, winning wire-to-wire and by 11 shots.
There hasn’t been much meat to this season. LSU is just two tournaments in, but obstacles already have presented themselves in the form of a stomach bug at the Carpet Capital Collegiate, the season opener, and a wet second round at the Conference Challenge. The Tigers, with three solid returners from last spring’s NCAA semifinal team and two underclassmen working to find their groove, haven’t flinched. If the theme of the early season, as Winstead says, truly is about finding an identity for this squad, then those elements have helped him gauge character.
At Spirit Hollow, the Tigers counted four scores under par in the first round to immediately distance themselves by nine. Heavy rain and thunderstorms delayed the start of the next round by four hours, but LSU, unruffled, extended its lead. After 54 holes, LSU stood at 15-under 849, 11 shots ahead of runner-up SMU, a team that also advanced to match play at last year’s national championship.
LSU’s squad is unique in all of its pieces. The level of success the Tigers can experience this season depends on the bottom of the roster – so far, it’s where the underclassmen have resided. On Tuesday, sophomore Eric Ricard challenged senior leader Stewart Jolly for the individual title. Ricard, who made only four team starts last year, posted a final-round 1-under 71 as Jolly fell to 74.
“Eric’s play this week was probably the most gratifying for the team because you have someone who is in the four hole but that doesn’t necessarily mean he is the fourth-best player on the team,” Winstead said.
Ricard put pressure on himself at the start of the day to catch Jolly. He made short birdie putts at Nos. 2 and 4 to shift some of that pressure to his teammate.
“I think I tried to hold onto it too much, I started guiding my shots a little bit,” Ricard said. A double bogey at No. 13 and a bogey at No. 15 effectively ended the run, but doesn’t dilute the accomplishment.
The final round was a lesson in letting go, and fighting the urge to play tentatively when the situation called for some aggression. In the end, Ricard finished runner-up to Jolly, four shots back at 5-under 211 for 54 holes.
“It helps my confidence a lot because I knew the season was going to mainly come down the four man,” Ricard said.
What unfolded at Spirit Hollow shows the real beauty of having Ricard in that position. When the sophomore joined the roster a year ago, he was just weeks removed from winning the Louisiana State Amateur. He’s benefited from another year of practicing with the team in Baton Rouge, La. For a player who understands how to win, the next learning curve will be about consistency.
“Making my worst scores still be in the lower 70s,” he said.
Freshman Blake Caldwell has also made two starts with the team this season. Caldwell (along with Winstead) was hit with food poisoning before the final round of the Carpet Capital, forcing him to withdraw. At Spirit Hollow, he posted a 9-over total, good for a tie for 29th place individually.
At the Carpet Capital, LSU entered the final round tied for first, only to lose Caldwell and fall to sixth. In spite of that, Caldwell – and the team – showed poise.
“It’s one thing to play well enough to get near the top, it’s another thing to be able to close,” Winstead said. “… This week kind of had that unfinished business aspect.”
Despite entering the season off the No. 11 position in last season’s final Golfweek ranking and a trip to national-championship match play, LSU went underrated perhaps because of its moving pieces and the uncertainty surrounding the bottom of the lineup. The Tigers traded out Smylie Kaufman and Curtis Thompson from last year’s squad. Benjamin Taylor, Zach Wright and Stewart Jolly stepped up, especially Jolly.
Jolly was overshadowed by his peers when he entered college in the fall of 2011, the same season that Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas enrolled at Texas and Alabama, respectively. Jolly, however, stayed at LSU rather than turning professional early. It was the best decision for his game. After his freshman year, he was ranked No. 369 by Golfweek. After his junior year, he was No. 29.
“He’s certainly developed into a very good player,” Winstead said. “… Time will tell exactly how far he can take it, but when he’s holing putts like he holed putts the first couple days, he’s got some offense.”
So far, Jolly has improved his score from junior year to senior year in each of two fall starts. Jolly was co-medalist at last year’s Conference Challenge, thanks in large part to closing rounds of 69. Jolly won outright on Tuesday after rounds of 66-67-74 for a 9-under 207 total. It’s his third collegiate victory.
“I handle myself better on the course than I used to,” Jolly said. “I am staying more calm in certain situations.”
More important to Jolly is what he can do to help the team. When he was a freshman at LSU, the senior class – with mentors Austin Gutgsell and Sang Yi – combined for 13 team titles in their four years. The Conference Challenge makes victory No. 7 for Stewart and classmate Ben Taylor (who transferred to LSU from Nova Southeastern, where he was a member of the Sharks’ national-title team in 2012) and Myles Lewis, who didn’t travel to Burlington with the team.
“For us to play well as a team, we need our four and five guys,” Jolly said, summing up what seems to be the theme for which Winstead had been searching.
From that perspective, the performance in Burlington points to a successful season.