LAS VEGAS – Of all tournaments, it had to be this one.
To say J.C. Deacon has deep ties to the Southern Highlands Collegiate would be an understatement.
Florida’s head coach competed in the event for four years when he played college golf at UNLV, the tournament’s host, from 2001-05. Later as UNLV’s assistant coach under his mentor, legendary 31-year head coach Dwaine Knight, Deacon helped run the event. And when he was hired at Florida in June 2014, the tournament, which annually boasts one of the top fields in college golf, would be a staple of the Gators’ schedule.
On Wednesday, in Deacon’s fourth season at Florida’s helm and the team’s third appearance at Southern Highlands since his hire, the Gators pulled out a 5-under 859 total for a four-shot win. It was Florida’s first Southern Highlands triumph under Deacon, and certainly one of the sweetest victories of the coach’s career.
Only Deacon was absent from the proceedings.
“Part of it almost doesn’t feel right, to win without him here,” said Mark Leon, Florida’s first-year assistant coach.
“We’ll still take it,” Leon added with a laugh.
Deacon appears to feel the same way.
Florida’s leader didn’t make it out to Las Vegas for good reason – the birth of his second daughter was imminent. The original due date was actually Monday, when the opening round was set to take place at Southern Highlands Golf Club.
So the Gators were prepared, and devised a plan ahead of time.
Dudley Hart, a two-time PGA Tour winner and four-time All-American at Florida from 1987-90, is a volunteer assistant coach this season. Roughly a month ago, the coaches called Hart about a plan to have him come out to Southern Highlands and serve as Leon’s de facto assistant coach for the week. (Leon would be head coach for the week.)
The idea was that if Deacon’s baby girl arrived by Feb. 28, he would be able to make it to the tournament. Any date after would mean not spending time with his daughter after her birth or missing her birth all together.
By Thursday, the baby hadn’t arrived and it was clear Deacon would be back in Gainesville with wife, Jessi, and their daughter, Dylan, while the players, Leon and Hart traveled to Las Vegas.
Leon, a father himself, knew Deacon was disappointed in staying home, but added it was clearly the right move.
“He wanted to be here so bad,” Leon said. “I just told him, ‘You can’t rush nature. It is what it is and we’ll do our best. We want you here, but there’s more golf tournaments. There’s only so many daughters.’ ”
As of the tournament’s end, the Deacons were still awaiting their second daughter’s arrival. According to Leon, the hope was the Deacons were going to the hospital Wednesday night and the baby would come then.
Whenever the newest Deacon arrives, Florida still took care of business out west.
The Gators, ranked seventh by Golfweek, led the 15-team field by three after the first round only to slip a shot behind No. 32 TCU after 36 holes. In the final round, though, the Gators posted a 4-under 284, one of four sub-par totals on Wednesday.
It was actually Florida and UNLV battling down the stretch before the No. 29 Rebels faltered late and dropped to solo fourth at even par. USC, ranked 17th, and No. 9 Texas Tech tied for second at 1 under after strong rounds. The Trojans, which boasted the individual champion in top-ranked Justin Suh, fired the day’s best round, an 8-under 280, to jump six spots. The Red Raiders’ 6-under 282 was good for the day’s second-best and a five-spot rise.
This is Florida’s second win of the season and a triumph that junior Gordon Neale said came in large part due to freshmen stepping up. Chris Nido closed in 4-under 68 to jump 25 spots to a tie for 16th at even par. Fellow frosh John Axelsen also sealed a T-16 with a solid closing 72.
Neale was none too shabby himself, pacing the team this week with a T-7 finish at 2 under despite a 2-over 74 in the final round.
In the aftermath, Neale left no doubt as to why this win against a field with 13 of the top 50 teams in the country meant so much.
“Starting freshman year, Coach Deacon always said this was our biggest regular season event of the year,” Neale said.
How was Deacon feeling back home? He made it clear with tweets displaying his pride.
In a post-win call to Neale, Deacon still couldn’t contain his enthusiasm.
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard him this excited about a win,” Neale said.
It’s understandable considering all that fell into place. Deacon remained in contact during the event, but Leon also pointed to Hart as having incalculable value this week due to his immense preparation toward golf, something that he felt rubbed off on the players. (Hart also joked post-round that he would retire after going 1-0 as a coach.)
Patience and discipline also have been team focuses all year, and a win at Southern Highlands – a layout that, as Deacon noted to Leon, will eat you alive if you don’t have both – proved those values have sunk in.
And Deacon not being there did help Neale out in a way. Deacon is the more detail-oriented of the two Florida coaches. So when Neale showed up late for the team’s departure to the course Wednesday, Axelsen couldn’t help but note what would happen if Deacon was there.
Oh Gordon, the third day in a row he’s been late. That’d be so many prowlers for him in the gym.
Leon, meanwhile, was surprised to hear that, as he thought the guys had generally been good about being ready in due time at Southern Highlands. When Axelsen reiterated that Neale indeed had been tardy, Leon replied nonchalantly, “Aw, John, he’s a minute late.”
Though it had a man missing from the links, Florida’s victory came right on time.
The impending arrival of Deacon’s second daughter only added to a special experience for Deacon’s team at a tournament and venue he holds so dear to his heart.
“The whole week was just so much fun,” Leon said. “To get a win is just unbelievable.”