Thomas leading Liberty to all-time highs

Preston Dembowiak of Liberty University looks over his putt at No.18 during the Rio Pinar Invitational at Rio Pinar Country Club.

Men's Rankings »

RankNameSchoolRating
1Casey FernandezSo. Miss.  66.31 
2Tomasz AndersonJ'Ville St  67.12 
3Chase KoepkaUSF-Bulls  67.27 
4Hunter StewartVanderbilt  67.27 
5Maverick McNealyStanford  67.32 

Men's Team Rankings »

RankNameRatingEvents
1South Florida 68.18 
2Illinois 68.90 
3SE Louisiana 69.66 
4Florida State 69.78 
5Baylor 69.89 

Look down the list of the top 50 teams in the final fall Golfweek/Sagarin Rankings and, for the most part, you will find your usual suspects. There are the likes of UCLA, Oklahoma State, Florida, Alabama, Georgia Tech, Stanford, Texas A&M, Augusta State, Georgia, Washington, etc.

Then there’s one that may cause you to stop and maybe even scratch your head a little bit. In at No. 41 sits Liberty University, the small, Christian-based school out of Lynchburg, Va.

Your first question might be, “Who are these guys?”

Well, they are the Flames, members of the Big South Conference, and during this past fall season they compiled a 42-10-1 overall record.

Their first appearance in the elite top 50 has been a work in progress throughout the past decade – a slow, methodical movement.

In 2002, Liberty finished 220th out of 240 teams in the final rankings. The next season, it moved up to 156 and a season later slipped to 164.

Current coach Jeff Thomas, who was a member of the Flames golf team from 1991 to ’95, became only the third men’s golf coach in the school’s history, beginning in the 2004-05 season. The Flames finished the year ranked 211th.

“I knew it was going to be a long, slow process,” said Thomas, who was the head teaching pro at River Hills Country Club in Valrico, Fla., when he took the Liberty job. “We had to take baby steps. My main goals coming in were to improve our facilities and schedule and then try to bring in the best golfers we could. Pretty much the first three years, the main focus was on getting better facilities.”

Thomas was able to achieve that goal. The Flames now have a full practice range, a large chipping and putting green, a building where they can hit balls in the winter, a team room and a teaching room.

Though Liberty doesn’t have a big, glamorous clubhouse like many of the major universities, Thomas said that could happen in the future. The upgrade in facilities proved to be a big plus in the recruiting game, and each year Thomas has been able to bring in some talented players, especially from Florida and Sweden.

And, slowly, the Flames got better and better. After finishing 195th in the 2006-07 rankings, Liberty moved up to 168 and then 132. For the first time, they cracked the 100 barrier last season, finishing 88th.

Now, they are off to their best start ever.

They opened the fall by shooting 9 under par and finishing third, behind Iowa and North Carolina State, at the Golfweek Conference Challenge. After a seventh place at the VCU Shootout, they bounced back and tied for first place with Kennesaw State at the Rees Jones before closing out with a third at the Old Dominion/Outer Banks event.

“We had a solid fall and one I feel we can build on this spring,” Thomas said. “We just need to stay focused and concentrate on getting better. The main thing is to be prepared and ready to play. This group of guys are really dedicated, and that’s a big plus.”

Leading the charge for the Flames this season are junior Robert Karlsson of Sweden, senior Preston Dembowiak of Summerfield, N.C., and sophomore Max McKay of Jacksonville, Fla.

Karlsson, who is No. 94 in the Golfweek/Sagarin Rankings, was four-for-four in top 20 finishes in the fall, including top 10s at the Conference Challenge (T-6), Rees Jones (T-2) and Outer Banks (T-5).

While Dembowiak and McKay, both of whom qualified for last year’s U.S. Amateur, are ranked 308 and 334, respectively, they had some solid fall showings. Dembowiak twice finished in the top 20, and McKay had a pair of top-10 efforts.

Also aiding the cause during the fall campaign were freshmen Chase Marinell, who had three top 25s; Niklas Lindstrom, who finished fourth at the Jones; and Ian McConnell, along with seniors Stephen Dooley and Chris Walters and junior Jordan Frye.

“When I first arrived here, the (team’s) winning mentality was very low,” Dembowiak said. “Our goal was not to finish last in a tournament, or at best beat one or two teams. Coach has brought in some very talented players these last few years, especially with Robert, and now we all have more of a winning mentality. When we go into a tournament, we want to win.”

It goes even deeper than that these days. Only twice has Liberty earned invitations to the NCAA post-season regionals – 2004 and 2006. Never has it made it to the NCAA finals.

Both of those events are now on the radar screen for Thomas and his Flames.

“Our success this fall, I feel, is a carryover from last spring,” Dembowiak said. “We had a lot of rounds last spring where we really played well, but then would shoot some high numbers the last few holes. Now we’re getting much better at finishing off our rounds.

“We were close to getting into regionals last season, and I think everyone is ready to work hard, get better and get to regionals and then to nationals this year,” he said.

Thomas couldn’t agree more.

“I think we can play better this spring than we did in the fall,” the Flames coach said. “We’re not only setting our sights on making regionals, but making a run and competing in the national championship.

“The main thing is getting the guys to believe they can be a top-25 program,” Thomas said. “I truly believe they can be. That would be our next step to take us to the next level.”

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