2004: Road to NCAA crown begins now
As the Indianapolis 500 public address announcer says, “Gentlemen, start your engines.”
Well, in Division I men’s golf it’s time to start the engines for the 2004 spring season in the race for NCAA postseason play.
The race’s restart begins Jan. 31-Feb. 1 at Florida’s Gator Invitational in Gainesville, followed by the Ping/Arizona Collegiate Feb. 2-3 in Tucson and the North Florida Mercedes Invitational Feb. 8-10 in Jacksonville, Fla.
From then on it will be a fast-paced, three-month charge to the NCAA Regionals May 20-22 and the NCAA Championship June 1-4.
Each of the three regionals – East at Yale Golf Club in New Haven, Conn.; Central at Purdue’s Kampen GC in West Lafayette, Ind.; and West at Sunriver (Ore.) Golf Club – will feature 27 teams and six individuals who are not members of those teams. The top 10 teams and two individuals at each regional advance to the 72-hole finals at The Homestead Resort’s Cascades Course in Hot Springs, Va.
Last fall provided a good indication as to the favorites heading into the spring, led by Florida, No. 1 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings. The Gators had five top 3s, including a trio of
victories. Led by Camillo Villegas, Matt Every, Jessie Mudd and James Vargas, Florida is solid throughout its lineup, and has good depth if needed. Don’t expect the Gators to stray too far from the top over the next few months.
No. 2 Clemson, the defending NCAA champion, didn’t win in the fall, but had four top 5s, and with a core that includes Gregg Jones, Matt Hendrix, Jack Ferguson and Brent Delahoussaye, the Tigers will no doubt find the win column this spring. Jones could be the key. The senior is solid and although he is ranked 26th after the fall, he is a better
player than that. If Jones can kick his game up a notch and seriously challenge for medalist honors, don’t be surprised if Clemson doesn’t become the first team since Houston in 1984-85 to win back-to-back national titles.
No. 3 Georgia, No. 4 UCLA and No. 5 Georgia Tech also will remain in the heat of the race. Like Clemson, Georgia did not win in the fall, but the Bulldogs are solid from top to bottom.
UCLA is one of the most veteran teams in the country with four seniors – Steve Conway, John Merrick, Travis Johnson and Roy Moon – and junior John Poucher, and all have NCAA
championship experience. These Bruins are good and certainly have what it takes to win their first NCAA title since 1988. They won three times in the fall, including the Golfweek/Ping Preview at the Homestead.
Georgia Tech may have surprised some in the fall, simply because the Yellow Jackets are a young team that many thought might be a year away. But with a victory at the Gary Koch Invitational, a
second at the Preview and a fifth at Carpet Capital, Tech has shown it is ready.
This quintet is hardly alone in the quest for a national championship. While they lead the way into the spring, there are plenty of worthy and talented challengers, including some semi-surprises such as Minnesota (No. 6 with three victories in four fall starts), California (No. 11 with a pair of victories) and Duke (No. 15 with a third and a first to close the fall).
And don’t forget those Cowboys from Stillwater, Okla. Although they were No. 13 in the final
fallrankings, Oklahoma State is sure to be a force to reckoned with before all is said and done. After opening with an 11th and an eighth, the Cowboys came back to capture the Jerry Pate Intercollegiate. They are young but extremely talented, and with freshman Casey Wittenberg, Golfweek’s 2003 Amateur of the Year, getting settled in, expect Oklahoma State to live up to coach Mike Holder’s high expectations. Wittenberg will miss one spring tournament for sure – the Boilermaker Invitational April 10-11, but he’ll have a pretty good excuse. As runner-up at last year’s U.S. Amateur, he earned an invitation to play in The Masters that week.
Arizona is a team that needs to bounce back this spring and I think that will happen. The Wildcats were No. 11 in Golfweek’s preseason rankings, but finished the fall No. 47. There is only one senior on the team – Chris Nallen – but he’s the guy who will make or break Arizona this season. If Nallen, who won the 2003 Northeast Amateur and was a member of the U.S. Walker Cup team, can be the leader and player he is capable of being, the Wildcats will be racing to the finish line as well.
A few other teams that were not in the preseason top 30 that you should keep an eye on this spring in the run to the regionals include Brigham Young, Colorado State, Indiana, Kansas State, Northwestern, Georgia Southern, Kentucky, Kent State, Kansas, LSU, Colorado and Texas A&M.
The bottom line: There is a wealth of talent out there and it’s spread from coast to coast.
No doubt before the NCAA Championship, there will be some big-time surprises and some major disappointments.
But that’s how it is today in college golf, especially in Division I.