Notebook: Arkansas an NCAA contender
This year’s NCAA Division I Men’s Championship is still more than two months away, but it’s never too early to start talking about the favorites to win this year’s title come May 29-June 3 at Riviera Country Club near Los Angeles.
Right now, two of the obvious choices are Texas and Alabama, Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings. Either would be a solid choice.
Off Campus: Callaway Collegiate Match Play Championship Recap
It all came down to two schools battling it out at the Callaway Collegiate Match Play Championship at The Concession Golf Club in Bradenton, Fla.: Duke, looking to repeat as champions and Arkansas looking for their sixth win of the season.
There also are others within, say, the top 15 or 20 that would have to be considered.
One of those, I believe, is 10th-ranked Arkansas.
With the NCAA finals consisting of a stroke-play/match-play format to determine the champion, the Razorbacks have shown they can excel in both.
On the stroke-play front, Arkansas has won five of its eight starts. Then, the Razorbacks bested 15 other teams March 20 in capturing the Callaway Match Play Collegiate Championship, defeating defending champion Duke 3 1/2 to 1 1/2 in the title match at Concession Golf Club in Bradenton, Fla.
That gives Arkansas a school-record six victories on the season.
“If we’re fortunate enough to get to the NCAA finals and get into match play, I think this will really help us,” said Razorbacks coach Brad McMakin, now in his sixth season at the school. “I think the young guys got a lot out of it. Once we advanced to the final match against Duke, I knew that, win or lose, it was going to help us in the long run.
“This tournament is designed to prepare kids for the future, and I have no doubt (they will) grow leaps and bounds from this experience.”
Some may say the six victories are nice, but might question Arkansas’ strength of schedule (28th, according to the Golfweek/Sagarins). But consider this: the Razorbacks are 17-5 against top-25 teams, 42-7 vs. the top 50 and 98-8 overall.
It’s all part of McMakin’s plan as he continues to build the program in Fayetteville toward making it one of the country’s elite.
“We try to go where we feel we have a chance to compete, have a chance to win,” McMakin said. “I’ve always believed that winning breeds confidence, and right now our guys believe they can win. . . . We’ve been able to get into the hunt every week, and that really gets the juices going. We just need to keep it up and see where it takes us.”
Interestingly enough, the Razorbacks have only one individual tournament winner: sophomore Sebastian Cappelen, who was medalist in the fall at the Cabo event in Mexico. He also has two other top 10s, owns a 72.54 stroke average and was 4-0 at the Callaway Match Play.
The team’s lone senior, reigning Western Amateur champion Ethan Tracy leads the Arkansas charge. He has had six top-5 finishes, including thirds at the Gator and Hayt, and carries a team-leading 71.92 stroke average.
But, as McMakin points out, it has been the guys in the 3, 4 and 5 slots who “have played exceptionally well and are keeping us in tournaments.”
“We’re not an explosive group but are very consistent,” McMakin said. “We’ve really gotten some solid play from the bottom of our lineup, and that always helps.”
Junior Josh Eure carries a 72.86 average and has a pair of top 10s, including a second at the Golfweek Conference Challenge; fellow junior Austin Cool (73.25) has three top 10s; and freshman Kolton Crawford (73.67) has one top 10.
“What I like most about this team is they are mentally tough,” McMakin said. “They’ve been able to grind it out and get things done when it’s crunch time.”
That’s a pretty good formula for NCAAs.
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MAJOR MARGINS: Texas has won five times this season (pretty good reason why the Longhorns are No. 1), and Alabama has a pair of victories. And, when these two teams win, they leave little doubt as to who is the best team that week.
Of the five Texas wins, only one has been by less than double digits, that being a five-stroke victory at the Amer Ari in Hawaii. Two have been by 20 shots or more, including 26 against a super-strong field at Isleworth. Average margin of victory for the Longhorns: 16.6.
Alabama’s two triumphs have come by an average of 20 strokes. The Crimson Tide opened the spring with an 18-shot win over Clemson in Puerto Rico, and last weekend they bounced back from a ninth-place showing at the Southern Highlands Masters with a 22-shot victory over Virginia at the Schenkel Invitational.
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GOOD TIDE-INGS: One Friday morning earlier this month, coach Jay Seawell’s Alabama team took some time off the course to participate in the Read Across America program at a Tuscaloosa elementary school. Each player on the Crimson Tide’s eight-man roster spent time reading Dr. Seuss books to children in kindergarten through second grade at University Place Elementary School.
The National Education Association’s Read Across America is an annual motivation and awareness program that calls for every child in every community to celebrate reading.
“What a great experience,” said Tide sophomore Cory Whitsett. “It was a lot of fun to take a break from our practice schedule and have a chance to come into the classrooms and read to a wonderful group of children. We came to Alabama to play golf, but more importantly to get an education. It’s so important for these kids to see that their school work is the key to achieving all their dreams.”
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SHORT SHOTS: Central Florida, No. 20 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings, saw its string of four consecutive Rio Pinar Invitational titles end this season, as the Knights lost to Wichita State on March 20 despite a 16-under-par total. “Some of the players might not even recognize that we had won the past four years,” UCF head coach Bryce Wallor said. “We’re a young team. We played four sophomores in the starting lineup. They’re kids. They’re resilient. They gave a great effort and shot a great score. It just wasn’t good enough.” . . . UCF sophomore Greg Eason notched his best performance of the spring at Rio Pinar, shooting a final-round 2-under 70 to tie for 10th at 3 under for the tournament. And he did it in front of a special crowd. Eason, from Leicester City, England, played in front of his dad and uncle, both of whom traveled to Orlando from England for the tournament. For Eason’s dad, Paul, it was his third time seeing his son play college golf – the other two were at last year’s Rio Pinar and the Isleworth Intercollegiate this past fall. Eason has played in all four tournaments this spring after missing time during the fall due to a wrist injury.
– Brentley Romine contributed to this report.
A look ahead . . .
What: Hootie at Bulls Bay Intercollegiate
When: March 25-27
Where: Bulls Bay Golf Club, Awendaw, S.C.
Why it’s important: LSU will attempt to win a third consecutive title at this event held near Charleston in South Carolina’s Lowcountry. Joining the No. 18-ranked Tigers in the 15-team field will be three other top-25 teams: No. 3 Auburn, No. 15 Texas A&M and No. 24 Virginia. In addition, two-time defending NCAA champion Augusta State needs a good performance. The rebuilding Jaguars have a 55-53 head-to-head record heading into the tournament, with a .500 mark required for postseason play.