Rice starting to gain momentum

Rice senior Chris Brown shot rounds of 74-73-69 to win the Rice Intercollegiate by four shots.

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The Rice men’s golf team is ruling the city of Houston. Don’t believe it? Pick up the sports section of Wednesday’s Houston Chronicle and turn the page.

See that headline? “Rice golf team living up to goals, ruling the city.”

Told you.

“I don’t know about 10 guys on the Rice golf team owning the city, but it’s pretty cool,” said senior Christopher Brown, self-proclaimed “small guy” and one of those responsible for the Owls’ recent success.

Brown, at 5 feet, 7 inches and 153 pounds, shot a final-round 3-under 69 on a cold and windy day Feb. 16 for the first individual victory of his career. It also helped the Owls to their first Rice Intercollegiate victory – by 19 shots over runner-up Auburn – and second win of the season.

For those counting at home, that’s already two more wins for Rice this season than the program had in the past decade – the Owls’ last victory coming at the 1998 Sacramento State Invitational.

photo

Courtesy Rice

Rice coach Drew Scott

“We’re not going to say we haven’t done anything special, but we also have to pinch ourselves every now and then,” said Rice coach Drew Scott, in his fifth year with the program and his first with a lineup featuring only his recruits. “We have to remind them, as easy as it has been, it can also go the other way pretty fast, too.”

Rice is No. 47 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings, on pace to make its first postseason appearance since the 1996-97 season. The University of Houston, by the way, with its 16 NCAA Championships and a storied history that includes alumni such as Nick Faldo and Fred Couples and a total of 13 major championships, is ranked 127th. (Houston finished seventh at the Rice event, 41 shots behind the Owls.)

Not that this has anything to do with a rivalry, no matter what it says in the Chronicle sports section.

This story just happens to be about the little guy – Rice has an enrollment of only 3,000 – working hard and getting a little attention.

“I don’t think really we’re going to surprise anybody or upset anybody,” said Scott, a former Canadian Tour player who played collegiately at Rice and North Carolina.

“But we have a good golf team, we’ve worked hard, we’ve got some players that are achieving some great things . . . and our expectations have really changed.”

Rice has finished each of the past four seasons ranked outside the top 100. Scott said those seasons had “a lot of individual accomplishments” but little in the way of team cohesion.

“We’ve never really pieced it together until now,” he said. “That was kind of limiting us.”

On Tuesday, Rice finished with five players in the top 13: Brown; junior Michael Whitehead, who finished second; senior Michael Buttacavoli (T-6), who has come back from knee surgery to post four top 10s; freshman Jade Scott (T-13), who led the team in scoring average this fall and won the David Toms Intercollegiate in just his fourth college start; and junior Tim Pawul (T-13).

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Rice began the fall with a victory at the season-opening UTA/Waterchase Invitational and ended it with a disappointing finish at the Carter Plantation Intercollegiate, where the Owls played poorly on the final two holes and finished second to Louisiana-Lafayette. That, combined with a “flat” performance at the Lone Star Shootout (ninth of 12 teams), has made his team work harder, Scott said.

“They see that hard work turns into lower scores and higher finishes,” Scott said.

Coming out of high school, Brown said he was just another “small guy that didn’t get a lot of attention,” but Scott signed him to his first recruiting class.

Brown said his “bunker game was a joke” when he arrived at Rice. Scott described it as a “zero out of 10.”

On Monday, standing in a bunker on the left side of the 10th green, Brown nestled down into the sand, lifted the ball out of the bunker and watched it disappear into the hole for birdie.

The next day, Brown, who led last season’s fairways-hit category, according to Golfstat.com, chipped in for another birdie from a couple of yards off the green on the seventh hole.

“With hard work and experience, now his short game is really solid,” Scott said.

It was good enough for a four-shot victory at the Rice event, even when Brown struggled for distance off the tee in the windy conditions. He was named Conference USA’s Golfer of the Week.

“All you can do is beat all the people that they put up against you,” Brown said.

And that’s all this team is thinking about.

• • •

SNOWED IN: Part of the reason the Big Ten Match Play tournament was created was to give its cold-weather programs a competitive opportunity against each other in February.

Of course, you have to get to Florida to play in the tournament, which is what Penn State failed to do last week.

The Nittany Lions’ original Delta flight from State College, Pa., got delayed two hours due to snow, which meant they would have missed their connection in Detroit, and there were no other flights heading to Fort Lauderdale that night. Only three airlines fly out of State College, and United (connection in Washington) and U.S. Airways (connection in Philadelphia) wasn’t an option, with storms swirling throughout the Northeast.

The team also considered driving to Cleveland until it heard of a 50-car pileup on Interstate 80.

“We just couldn’t get out of town, and we were more than likely going to be stuck in Detroit for two days,” assistant coach Jon Dunlap said.

“We would’ve already missed the match at that point.”

For head coach Greg Nye, it was the first time he had failed to get his team to a match in his 18 years in Happy Valley.

Penn State was scheduled to play Purdue in the first round Feb. 12. The Boilermakers went on to knock off top-seeded Illinois and advance to the finals, where they lost to Northwestern.

The Nittany Lions will try again to open their spring season at the Pinehurst Intercollegiate on March 12-14, where they will defend their title.

Until then, it’s back to hitting balls inside the football complex, as is customary for the Lions this time of year.

• • •

A look ahead

What: Puerto Rico Classic

When: Feb. 21-23

Where: Rio Mar (River Course), Rio Grande, Puerto Rico

Why it’s important: Ten teams in the top 42 of the Golfweek/Sagarin Rankings are included in the field. . . . Coming off its victory at the Jacksonville Invitational, East Tennessee State looks to make it two in a row against a solid field. . . . Alabama’s Bud Cauley makes his first appearance with the No. 1 ranking. . . . Oklahoma State’s Peter Uihlein, the top-ranked player from the fall (now No. 5), will try to rebound from a poor start to the spring season in Hawaii (T-85, Amer Ari Invitational).

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