STILLWATER, Okla. – When Texas Tech senior Fredrik Nilehn won the Lamkin Grips San Diego Classic on March 13 for his second individual title of the year and the Red Raiders notched their sixth runner-up finish in seven events, things were looking up in Lubbock, Texas.
But two days later, Nilehn, ranked fourth in the Golfweek/Sagarin rankings and a Haskins Award contender, was hitting wedges on the range and felt a sharp pain in his back.
“He just couldn’t go anymore,” said Texas Tech head coach Greg Sands.
Nilehn missed the next three tournaments, including the Big 12 Championship, because of inflammation caused by a past stress fracture in one of his lower vertebrae. He returned at the NCAA Columbus Regional, where he tied for 43rd, and was set to play at this week’s NCAA Championship before the back pain returned and the Swede was substituted for freshman Kyle Hogan before Friday’s round.
A potentially devastating blow for the 16th-ranked Red Raiders, though through 36 holes at Karsten Creek, things are still looking up for Texas Tech. The Red Raiders are 5 under and near the top of the leaderboard with two rounds to play in stroke play.
“Being out of this tournament, the most important tournament of the year, is pretty tough,” Nilehn said. “But the guys have done an awesome job. It’s a tough golf course and I’ve seen a lot of good shots out there. It’s been fun to be out there supporting them.”
Junior Ivan Ramirez and senior Hurly Long each began their first rounds on Friday with eagle on the par-5 first hole. They’ve combined to shoot 8 under through 36 holes with Ramirez leading the way at 5 under thanks to his opening 5-under 67. Long was the team’s leading scorer Saturday along with junior Adam Blomme as they each shot 1-under 71.
“I made sure they knew that we believed them and Fred made sure they knew he believed in them,” Sands said. “They certainly have taken on the challenge and I’m loving what I’m seeing right now.”
In Texas Tech’s first tournament after Nilehn went down with injury, the Red Raiders placed 10th, at the Aggie Invitational. They followed with a third at the El Macero Classic and seventh at the Big 12 Championship.
There was cause for concern, but in Sands’ mind the team erased any doubt at regionals. With Nilehn not breaking 73 in any of the three rounds, Texas Tech placed Long and Blomme in the top 10, and three Red Raiders broke par on the final day to send the team through to nationals.
Texas Tech has carried that momentum over to this week.
“It’s a testament to how good we are as a team,” Long said. “We have struggled in recent weeks, but you know, that’s going to happen. We’ve had a good year and it’s not just been Freddy. He’s played terrific, but other guys have stepped up, too.”
Including Hogan, who played seven times this season before this week, including the three tournaments that Nilehn missed. His best finish came at the El Macero, where he tied for seventh.
After Nilehn decided during Thursday’s practice round that he wasn’t going to play, Hogan posted an opening-round 74 that counted toward the team’s first-round score. He did so playing alongside U.S. Amateur champion Doc Redman of Clemson and U.S. Amateur runner-up Doug Ghim of Texas.
“To have him playing out here with some of the best amateurs in the world, it’s a great experience for him,” Nilehn said. “He’s now seen those two players that he played with and I think it’s going to help him when he’s facing that kind of competition moving along in this tournament, especially in match play.”
Said Long: “If anyone’s up to the task, he is. He got the news pretty late and it was a pretty special group he played with. But you can thrive on that, too.”
So far, the entire Texas Tech team is thriving at Karsten Creek.