Despite injuries, Florida back at NCAAs

Florida's Tyler McCumber during Monday's practice at the 2013 NCAA Championship at Capital City Club Crabapple Course.

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MILTON, Ga. –– When it comes to injuries and illnesses, Florida head coach Buddy Alexander has been fortunate.

Aside from a playoff loss in the 1990 SEC Championship after a broken rib sidelined Dudley Hart, Alexander’s teams have, for the most part, avoided the injury bug.

“I don’t think I’ve ever had a guy not be able to finish a tournament (due to injury) and I don’t have a recollection of a real valuable guy being injured at the wrong time,” said Alexander, now in his 26th season at Florida. “I’ve been the luckiest guy ever through the years.”

That is, until this season.

After returning four players who were part of last year’s squad that finished T-12 at the NCAA Championship, the Gators have struggled to stay healthy this season.

Sophomore Eric Banks missed the entire fall after undergoing open-heart surgery last summer. Senior T.J. Vogel had sports-hernia surgery in the winter before dealing with fatigue and the flu for the first part of the spring. Freshman A.J. Crouch had mononucleosis. And senior Tyler McCumber fought through getting his wisdom teeth pulled last summer, a resulting staph infection just before the fall and then a bout with walking pneumonia entering the spring.

“It’s been a wacky year,” Alexander said. “It’s been one thing after another.”

Said McCumber: Bad year for getting sick, but we’re all good now.”

Despite the numerous setbacks, Florida will compete in its 13th straight NCAA Championship beginning Tuesday at the Capital City Club’s Crabapple course.

The Gators are coming off a runner-up finish at the NCAA Baton Rouge Regional – it was their best finish since they started the fall with a victory at the Invitational at the Ocean Course followed by second-place finishes at Olympia Fields and the Jerry Pate.

“It was important to play well and not just qualify because we hadn’t played well all (spring) semester,” Alexander said.

Not that Florida’s finishes in the spring were all that bad with four fourth-place showings. But it was the 10th-place finish at the SEC Championship – one with a healthy lineup, too – that concerned Alexander.

“By the time conference rolled around we were pretty healthy and that was our worst tournament of the year, so there was no excuse for that,” Alexander said.

A quick rebound in Baton Rouge, though, has the Gators playing their best golf at the right time. Both Vogel and McCumber tied for third at the University Club of Baton Rouge, and Florida led defending national runner-up Alabama after two rounds.

For Vogel, who finished no worse than T-7 in four fall events, it was his first top 10 of the spring – “he had a little bit of the Masters curse but played great in Baton Rouge, and that was a big factor,” said Alexander.

Then there’s McCumber, who has 15 top 10s and three runner-up finishes in his collegiate career but has yet to win a tournament. He’s shown the ability to play well in big tournaments, though. In his last six postseason starts dating to last year’s SEC Championship, McCumber has three T-3 finishes and a joint-second performance at last year’s NCAA Championship.

“A lot of coaches come to this event thinking that if they can just get all five guys to play well or get good play from their No. 5 guy (then they’ll have success),” Alexander said. “You know what, though? Your No. 1 and No. 2 guys, they are the ones that need to step up. If we get that then we’ll have a good chance to be competitive, not Cal- or Alabama-competitive, but everyone knows once you get to match play, anything can happen.”

McCumber and Vogel like Florida’s chances on the Crabapple course – a par-70, 7,319-yard layout that features firm and fast fairways, no rough, and true-rolling greens.

“It’s going to come down to those greens,” McCumber said. “We’re happy to finally get back on some nice greens.”

Said Vogel: “We’ve been putting on some really bad greens these last two months.”

Florida’s title chances nearly took a major hit leading up to this week. It came in the form of yet another injury after sophomore J.D. Tomlinson cut his right big toe on a swimming-pool tile after regionals. It was too painful for him to practice last week, although he did hit some balls before the team left Saturday for Georgia.

As a result, Alexander chose to bring six players to the NCAA Championship: McCumber, Vogel, Banks, Tomlinson, Crouch and Tommy Mou.

“I had two concerns: that not playing Monday-Friday would put him behind and that he wouldn’t be able to really walk,” Alexander said.

But Tomlinson answered those concerns Sunday and Monday. He got through 18 holes in a cart Sunday at Atlanta National and then made it through Monday’s practice round using a push cart. He’ll join McCumber, Vogel, Banks and Mou in the starting lineup for the season finale.

“It’s nice that things are in order for our team right now,” McCumber said. “We did have a few weird things happen with illnesses, injuries, cut toes. I can’t even name it all. But everyone is playing solid. We just have to come together again at the right time these next few days, and I’m feeling pretty confident.”

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