BURLINGTON, Iowa – The Golfweek Conference Challenge begins Sunday at Spirit Hollow Golf Course in Burlington, Iowa. Here’s five things you need to know before play gets underway at the 7,301-yard, par-72 layout:
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1. WORTH THE TRIP: The Jacksonville State men’s team is putting plenty of miles on its van. The Gamecocks drove approximately 450 miles Tuesday to return home from the Golfweek Program Challenge in Myrtle Beach, S.C., arriving home around midnight. They were back on the road Friday for an even longer trip.
It was 16 hours and more than 700 miles door-to-door from Jacksonville to Burlington, Iowa. The team left campus at 6 a.m. Friday and checked into their hotel at 10 p.m.
Spirit Hollow isn’t the easiest place for any team to find. The course is 90 minutes from the Quad City International Airport in Moline, Ill., and three hours from Des Moines (Iowa) International Airport. Some teams fly into Chicago and make the four-hour drive. The tough travel hasn’t deterred teams from all over the country from convening here, though. The 15 participants represent 15 separate conferences.
“I think that’s the fun part of the college game,” San Jose State head coach John Kennaday said about the travel. “It’s a big part of growing up in the game these days, seeing different courses and different teams. It took us 10 or 11 hours to get here, maybe more, but it was fantastic team-building.”
This is the farthest east the Spartans will travel this year. New Mexico is their next-farthest trip.
Three teams – Long Beach State, San Francisco and San Jose State – are here from California. Florida Gulf Coast traveled from the Sunshine State, while Wake Forest and Campbell arrived from North Carolina, giving the tournament a field that spans the country.
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2. BACK HOME: Jamie Bermel is back in his home state as he begins a new adventure. Bermel was hired July 3 as the head men’s golf at Kansas following a successful tenure at Colorado State, where he led the Rams to 12 NCAA regional appearances in the previous 13 seasons.
Bermel coached two seasons at Iowa State (1997-99). He spent the previous five seasons as head golf coach at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. Bermel coached Masters champion Zach Johnson at Drake and PGA Tour winner Martin Laird at Colorado State.
Kansas finished 12th out of 15 teams in Bermel’s debut at the Gene Miranda Falcon Invitational.
He’d never set foot at Spirit Hollow before Saturday, though. “I thought it was hard,” he said. “I think it’s a difficult golf course for college players. If you hit it off the fairway, you’re in thick rough. You have to chip and putt well.”
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3. BEAR NECESSITIES: How did Central Arkansas get to celebrate its title Tuesday at the Golfweek Program Challenge? With a canceled flight that delayed the Bears’ return to Conway, Ark., until Wednesday morning. The players have practiced approximately 2 hours since the victory. There was no practice Wednesday as they traveled and returned to campus. There was a light practice Thursday, then more class Friday before the team traveled to Burlington. It arrived in its hotel at approximately 11 p.m.
The Golfweek Conference Challenge ends Tuesday, giving the Bears a chance to win two Golfweek titles in one week. They claimed the Golfweek Program Challenge in Myrtle Beach, S.C., with a final-round 284 Sept. 11 to finish at 2-under 862, two shots ahead of Jacksonville State, which also is in the Golfweek Conference Challenge.
Austen Moix, a senior from Conway, Ark., was Cenral Arkansas’ top finisher at the Golfweek Program Challenge, finishing second at 9-under 207.
Central Arkansas will have to get used to tight turnarounds. Its next event, the D.A. Weibring Intercollegiate, starts Sept. 22 in Illinois, just four days after the Golfweek Conference Challenge.
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4. LONG’S SHOT: Missouri senior Jace Long arrives at the Golfweek Conference Challenge after a 10-shot victory at the season-opening Turning Stone Intercollegiate. He’ll leave directly from the Golfweek Conference Challenge for an even bigger test: PGA Tour Q-School.
Long is scheduled to leave after the third round and make the 5 1/2-hour drive from Burlington to Nebraska City, Neb., then compete the next morning in Q-School.
“I’m not going to put any pressure on myself. If I play like I can, I can make a run at it, but my career’s not over if I don’t make it,” he said.
If Long doesn’t earn a tour card, he’ll get the chance to participate as the Tigers play the SEC Championship for the first time. This is the first year the Tigers are playing as a member of the SEC. Because they switched conferences, it allowed former conference foe Kansas to also play in the Golfweek Conference Challenge. The tournament only allows one team per conference to play.
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5. KEEP THE CHANGE: Spirit Hollow is a little different each year, always undergoing slight modifications to make the course better. The biggest change this year came at the 527-yard, par-5 second hole, which used to be a prime birdie opportunity. A lake was installed along the left side of the 527-yard, par-5, adding risk to players taking an aggressive line on this reachable dogleg-left.
“It’s a dramatic change in what you see,” said Iowa head coach Mark Hankins. “The edge of the water is about 285, so you can try to bomb it over the corner, but if you hit it left you’re in the water and too far right puts you in the weeds.”
A tree was added to the right side of the 439-yard, par-4 13th. This was to prevent players from cutting the corner on the downhill, dogleg-right by playing down the fairways of the adjacent 10th hole. The 13th requires players to hit their tee shot along the left side of the fairway to avoid being blocked out by the trees. Drier conditions this year are helping players get past the corner of the dogleg, while also making the play down the 10th fairway more dangerous because balls could run through the fairway into a creek.
“You can go right (into No. 10), but it’s getting tougher,” Hankins said.