After nearly quitting college golf, Raul Pereda helps put Jacksonville men in position to repeat at True Blue

Raul Pereda is a different player than he was several months ago.

After nearly quitting college golf, Raul Pereda helps put Jacksonville men in position to repeat at True Blue

Men

After nearly quitting college golf, Raul Pereda helps put Jacksonville men in position to repeat at True Blue

Scores

PAWLEYS ISLAND, S.C. – Raul Pereda’s opening hole at the Golfweek Program Challenge Presented by Myrtle Beach Golf Holiday wasn’t pretty.

The Jacksonville junior came to True Blue Golf Club’s par-5 first and promptly dumped his ball in a bunker… on his first three shots.

“I was like, wow, it’s going to be a long day,” he said.

At a different time, the early struggles might have sent Pereda into a day-long funk. But in the present day, he didn’t let it get to him.

Instead, he got up and down for par, and then reeled off seven birdies in his next 16 holes to fire a career-low 7-under 65 to take a one-shot lead after the first round.

“This is probably a year in the making for Raul,” said Jacksonville head coach Mike Blackburn after Pereda’s opening round. “He’s been hitting the ball great, just hasn’t been getting much out of his rounds.”

Pereda followed up Monday with a lackluster 73, in which he had trouble getting the speed of the greens down.

But thanks to a bogey-free 66 from David Wicks (9 under, third), the Dolphins, which won the men’s competition here by seven shots last year, posted a 6-under 282 in the second round to move to 19 under overall and one shot ahead in the men’s contest entering the final round.

Pereda, meanwhile, was sanguine about his 73 in the aftermath.

“Bad rounds aren’t the end,” Pereda said. “A lot of positive things to learn from today.”

Of course, at 6 under, Pereda is solo sixth and only four back of co-leaders Camilo Aguado (Jacksonville State) and Thomas LaMorte (Campbell). So he can’t be feeling too bad when has an outside chance at the individual title. And it’s not like he put up an 80 on Monday.

So why is it such a big deal for Pereda to brush off a 73? Because you don’t where he’s been.

Pereda enjoyed an Atlantic Sun All-Freshman campaign, with three top-10s, in 2014-15, and his results didn’t waver much the next year. He did have two fewer starts in 2015-16 but was still able to post four top-20s and lowered his scoring average from 72.93 to 72.67.

But something was different.

For one, Pereda dealt with back issues the majority of the season.

It started around this time last year when Pereda hit a driver in a warm-up and something felt weird. He got Icy Hot treatment, but the twinge in his lower left back turned out to be a back spasm.

He wouldn’t have to miss playing time, but it’s an ailment that doesn’t ameliorate itself quickly.

Treatment that included stretching, cupping, heat packs and massages would be administered to Pereda for roughly an hour three times a week from the time of the injury through April. Until February, Pereda felt pain and discomfort in his back when he played golf.

The physical was a cake-walk, though, compared to the battle going on inside Pereda’s mind.

Accompanying the back issues was a diminishing mental game: Pereda no longer had fun playing golf. Even when he returned to 85-90 percent in February and at least felt comfortable physically in the spring, he was not enjoying his time on the golf course.

Sure, the injuries helped him sour on the game a bit, but it really wasn’t about that. Golf just felt like tedious work.

“I was probably doing this as a job and I was not motivated at all,” Pereda said.

How bad did it get? At one point, it appeared the Mexico native wouldn’t return to the golf team in the spring.

As January rolled around and the joy of golf had completely fizzled, Pereda contemplated a split from the competitive game.

The plan: Go home to Mexico in the spring, attend college there and only play golf with friends on occasion.

He sort of informed then-teammate Franck Medale of his thoughts through jokes, but it never got to the stage of telling coaches he might be leaving.

Even if it never came to that, though, the demons were still serious.

“I really got to the point where I told myself I’m not coming back next semester,” Pereda said.

Fortunately for Pereda, two things stopped him.

First, there was the regret that would come with leaving a team and a sport that he had invested so much in.

“I didn’t want to quit because golf is part of my life,” Pereda said. “I don’t see myself working behind a desk.”

But still he needed something to change. In comes the second prong.

Teammates on the Mexican national squad and others back home urged Pereda to think about employing a mental coach.

“A lot of people told me situations would be harder in the future,” Pereda said. “They said, now you’re playing for a trophy, but later you’re playing for money.”

Pereda took the step, going to Jorge Martinez, a former professional soccer player who has now focused on mentoring young Mexican golfers, in January.

The duo worked to build a positive structure for Pereda’s mind: talking things over, eliminating the bad thoughts, making sure Pereda wasn’t rushing through his pre-shot routine (a tendency of his when he got flustered).

Martinez had his pupil write down notes after each round, in order to get Pereda to put his thoughts out on paper.

For example, the notes after Monday’s 73 may consist of points regarding the speed of the green: Pondering how to match the speed and line, documenting how short he missed each putt, reminding himself to always play the speed at a foot past the hole. A calm way to chronicle what you need to do better, and also a nice resource in times of struggle.

But not much changed on the outside for months. Even after a confidence-boosting third at the John Hayt Invitational – loaded with top-50 teams – in February, Pereda still craved that enjoyment he lost.

Then, all of a sudden, the work he and Martinez put in blossomed. In June, Pereda finished T-2 at the Dogwood Invitational, a prominent summer amateur event, and the switch went on.

“That tournament really made me look at this game different,” Pereda said. “At the Dogwood, it was a different me out there.”

The joy returned and Pereda was out of his funk.

The Golfweek Program Challenge is Jacksonville’s opening event of the season, but his teammates already see a transformation.

Wicks says Pereda’s head and shoulders are now held high and the air around him has altered.

“He’s come back after the summer a different guy,” Wicks said. “He walks more confident, he doesn’t look upset. He walks around like he’s a champion.”

It’s so big a change that Pereda is producing one of the best performances of his college career this week even as his back issues have once again flared up.

Last month, while playing a casual round with friends in Mexico, Pereda tired to rip a driver, and then felt a shooting pain very similar to his spasm the previous year in his lower left back.

“I was trying to show off how hard I can hit the ball,” Pereda said. “It didn’t work well.”

He would finish the round, but rather than go to a doctor, he decided to stretch daily and avoid going to the gym in order to heal his back.

Pereda also took a break from golf, only allowing himself to chip and putt for the three weeks leading up to the season.

In fact, the team’s three-round, 54-hole qualifier, played at Dye’s Valley Course and Marsh Landing Country Club in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., for the Golfweek Program Challenge was Pereda’s first time playing golf since the scare back home.

The hiatus left him rusty, but Pereda still managed to post 73-75-73 for third place and a spot in this week’s lineup, which he’s parlayed into an even stronger performance.

And he’s not even doing it fully healthy. Pereda pegged his back at 30 percent when he felt the initial pain last month, and has got it better thanks to the rest. But he still only puts his back at 75 percent.

So you can understand why his coach is so bullish on his abilities.

“I’ve been telling people since Raul came to JU, it’s not a case of whether, just when,” Blackburn said.

Pereda has yet to win a college event, something he could tick off Tuesday with maybe, say, something like that opening-round 65.

If it doesn’t happen, though, the junior won’t fret. The changed Pereda has fully bought in to his new persona.

“I really trust myself now,” Pereda said.

A simple phrase, but he means it. And that shows just how far he’s come.

• • •

Here is how everything stands at the Golfweek Program Challenge through the second round:

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Place School Men Women Total
1 Campbell -17 +7 -10
2 Jacksonville State -16 +25 +9
3 Boston College +3 +7 +10
4 Jacksonville -19 +31 +12
5 James Madison -18 +39 +21
6 Morehead State +4 +19 +23
7 Mercer -13 +45 +32
8 Gardner-Webb -8 +44 +36
9 Stetson -8 +50 +42
10 Houston Baptist +1 +50 +51
11 Tennessee Tech +15 +47 +62
12 Elon -1 +70 +69
13 Western Carolina +4 +66 +70
14 Radford -5 +78 +73
15 Xavier +27 +48 +75
15 Valparaiso +11 +64 +75

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