Campbell continues domination, sweeps titles at Golfweek Program Challenge

Lance Ringler/Golfweek

Campbell continues domination, sweeps titles at Golfweek Program Challenge

College

Campbell continues domination, sweeps titles at Golfweek Program Challenge

Scores: Men | Women

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PAWLEYS ISLAND, S.C. – At least a couple of Campbell players carry the superstition that a birdie to open a round is bad omen.

Anna Svanka had short birdie putts on her opening hole in her final two rounds at the Golfweek Program Challenge, and no she didn’t intentionally miss the good looks, but the superstition crept into her head on both tries and she failed to drop either effort.

The origins of the superstition are vague.

“It’s some funny thing I had heard from a few people,” said senior Ray Kraivixien, laughing. “Also for myself, once in a while, I feel like if I birdie the first hole something really unusual happens.”

But nothing – not superstitions nor an incoming hurricane – could stop Campbell from piling up loads of birdies over three days.

The Camels dominated the Golfweek Program Challenge, as the men tore apart True Blue Golf Club to the tune of a 48-under 816 for a 34-shot victory in their division and the women closed out a six-shot triumph at Caledonia Golf & Fish Club with an 18-under 834 total.

The sweep continued in the individual race, as Campbell came out on top there on both the men’s and women’s side.

The Golfweek Program Challenge also crowns a winner for the program whose men’s and women’s teams combine for the best score. Campbell captured that for the sixth time in its last seven appearances at this event, as the combined 66-under total was 91 shots clear of runner-up Jacksonville State.

“It was a real privilege being able to watch confident athletes at the top of their game playing golf,” said John Crooks, Campbell’s head men’s and women’s coach.

The tee times for the lead teams in Tuesday’s final round were moved up in order to expedite the finish, as coastal areas of South Carolina were under mandatory evacuation starting mid-Tuesday with Hurricane Florence on the way.

This event was cancelled last year due to Hurricane Irma, so Campbell was little fazed.

The men’s team held a 19-shot lead over Gardner-Webb and closed in 15-under 273 for its astounding final margin over Jacksonville State and Stephen F. Austin. This is the first time Campbell has captured the men’s division title since 2011. The women boosted an overnight two-shot margin to six over Old Dominion, securing that group its fourth title in this event.

A day after a bogey-double bogey-bogey finish dropped him from the lead, senior Jesper Svensson came right back with a 7-under 65 for 16-under total to seal a four-shot win. It was sophomore Isabell Ekstrom who secured the women’s individual crown, as she fashioned rounds of 67, 67 and 68 for a three-shot victory at 11 under.

Oddly, neither player entered the season opener in good form.

Svensson finished sixth in the seven-man pre-tournament qualifier for the men’s team, which meant Crooks had to utilize a coach’s pick to put him in the starting lineup.

Ekstrom had struggled with her game in previous weeks, not quite clicking in the right feeling she had out of the summer. Minus that feeling, she wasn’t hitting the shots she wanted and was losing about 10 yards in distance.

But diligent practice got her back on track, and her confidence returned by the time she took on Caledonia.

“I had a great feeling, a feeling that I recognized so I could trust it,” Ekstrom said. “I trusted myself and a lot of putts rolled in.”

But the biggest development for Campbell this week was the depth in lineups. Crooks was using this event as a qualifier of sorts for each team’s next tournament, with the top three finishers from each squad at the Golfweek Program Challenge getting an auto pick for the next starting lineup.

Each squad has seven players, and all were competing this week. Crooks felt he had a lot of good players, and it showed.

On the women’s side, four players finished in the top six on the leaderboard. That included a solo third (at 6 under) for the senior Svanka – who was competing this week as an individual but finished second on the team at Caledonia to seal her auto starting spot.

On the men’s side, Campbell went 1-2-3 on the final leaderboard. That meant junior Brett McLamb, playing as an individual, couldn’t even parlay his T-4 into an automatic spot in the starting lineup.

It’s a fierce competition forming in these groups.

“Everyone can be in the lineup, actually not just in the lineup, everyone can be No. 1 on the team easily,” said Kraivixien, who finished solo second at 12 under.

Crooks is in his 29th year as men’s head coach and 28th at the helm of the women at Campbell. It’s his first full campaign without his wife, Susan, by his side.

Susan passed away in April at age 67 after battling pancreatic cancer for 14 months.

The pair was married for 48 years, with Susan making a successful career as an attorney after graduating top of her class at Campbell Law School.

“She made me want to be a better person,” Crooks said.

Crooks says he specifically misses being able to call Susan every day. When reminiscing about his memories of his late wife, the coach couldn’t help poking some fun at himself.

“When she talked to me, all she had to do was say my name a certain way and I knew what kind of trouble I was in,” Crooks said, laughing.

Months before Susan’s passing, the couple was honored at a luncheon for establishing the John and Susan Crooks Golf Endowed Scholarship Fund – which will ensure a scholarship in the couple’s name will live out.

Susan may’ve had her own career, but she was a constant presence of support around her husband’s golf programs as well.

“She played a big part in Campbell golf,” said junior Stacey White, who finished fourth at 5 under this week. “She was always around and so excited when we won and was always the first person to call when we walked off the course.”

It’s a new season and some things have changed.

But a strong season opener at the Golfweek Program Challenge? It’s a familiar feeling for Campbell.

“We just love coming here,” White said. “This is such a great place to start the season.”

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