WINDERMERE, Fla. – John Axelsen received quite the welcome to the University of Florida earlier this fall. When the Denmark native opened the door to his dorm room for the first time, he was surprised by his teammates, who had waited in the dark for Axelsen to arrive.
Sunday at Isleworth Golf and Country Club, Axelsen arrived again – this time, though, it was on the golf course.
The 19-year-old freshman from Tollose, who hadn’t broken the top 45 in his first two college starts, opened the Tavistock Collegiate Invitational with a 5-under 67, his first sub-70 round in seven rounds. Axelsen, who shares the first-round lead with Illinois senior Dylan Meyer, birdied six of his first eight holes, looking like the stud prospect that Florida head coach J.C. Deacon recruited to come to Gainesville. (Axelsen was 15th in the World Amateur Golf Ranking when he signed his national letter of intent last November; he is now ranked 29th.)
Axelsen bogeyed two of his next three holes to slow his momentum, but he hung tough to help the defending tournament champion Gators to a 6-under opening round, just three back of Illinois.
“All in all, it’s a great round for me,” Axelsen said. “I got a huge boost in confidence.”
The breakout performance came as a surprise to no one on the Florida team. Axelsen has the talent; he’s a gifted ballstriker and isn’t afraid to go low. When the putter is hot, Axelsen can get it into the low 60s.
“Just playing with him, it’s real easy to see how good he is,” Florida junior Gordon Neale said. “You don’t get to 15th in the world by mistake; that’s years and years of really good playing. He’s one of the best ballstrikers I’ve ever seen, especially off the tee.”
Said Deacon: “His ballstriking and driving are about as good as I’ve ever seen. It’s like he’s playing a video game.”
So what held Axelsen back early in the fall as he finished T-48 and T-49 in consecutive tournaments? Axelsen and his team chalk it up to growing pains. Axelsen not only moved across the globe from a small town of just 7,000 people, but he’s had to adjust to new grasses such as Bermuda, new cuisine like hamburgers and hot dogs, a new climate (though he’s loved the warm temperatures of sunny Florida), and more. When he showed up to school, he knew only Deacon and a couple of his teammates.
“It was like I was starting all over again,” Axelsen said. “I knew almost nobody.”
Said Neale: “I certainly had a hard time coming to Florida from California; I can’t imagine how hard it must’ve been coming from Denmark. … I’m sure just everything around him kind of bled into his game a little bit.”
Three months after stepping on campus, though, Axelsen is fitting in. He had his first peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich this fall (Axelsen said they don’t eat much peanut butter in Denmark). He also attended his first football game. And he experienced his first “hail mary” at that game, as the Gators beat rival Tennessee on a last-second touchdown pass.
“It was fun to see how excited he was,” Deacon said. “John loved that.”
What was no fun, however, is when Deacon had to tell Axelsen he wouldn’t be traveling to Oregon with the team to play in the Nike Golf Collegiate. Deacon wasn’t worried about his star freshman’s game, but perhaps some time alone to focus on golf, school and life would do Axelsen a world of good.
“Don’t worry about me,” Axelsen told Deacon. “I’m going to take care of my business.”
With his team three time zones away, Axelsen went to work. And when qualifying rolled around again, Axelsen sealed his spot in Florida’s Tavistock lineup with a final-round 66.
“It’s a powerful thing not going to a tournament,” Neale said. “You could either get discouraged, get angry and not be happy about it, or you can really choose to do something about it.”
Axelsen couldn’t figure out the grains of Bermuda greens earlier this fall. Downgrain putts would finish well past the hole and putts into the grain would end up well short. At Isleworth, Axelsen was not only more comfortable on the greens but more confident, as well.
As Deacon and his team know, if Axelsen is rolling it well, he’s as good as anyone in the country.
“Mark (Leon, the Gators’ assistant) and I both saw the brilliance in his golf game, and it was just a matter of time before the results were going to come,” Deacon said. “He’s too good of a ballstriker to struggle that long. … He’s going to have a big-time future in this game, that’s for sure.”
College golf got a glimpse of that future on Sunday. Not that anyone should be surprised.