CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa – For a guy who had “no clue” what he wanted to do coming out of college, Drexel men’s golf coach Ben Feld looks pretty clued in now.
The fourth-year leader of the Dragons seems locked into his element, whether he’s reading putts, recruiting players or relating peer-to-peer. It’s already old hat for the 28-year-old, who hopes to watch a veteran roster finally make its NCAA breakthrough. It’s been more than 20 years since Drexel reached the postseason tournament.
Located in Philadelphia, Drexel is representing the Colonial Athletic Association at the 11th annual Golfweek Conference Challenge at Cedar Rapids Country Club, where it placed 10th out of 16 teams after Sunday’s first round.
The scores weren’t bad – at a cumulative 5-over, the Dragons are merely five strokes adrift of fourth in their first event of the year – they’re in the first part of the nine-month slog toward the spring.
“I can’t believe I’m a senior,” said Connor Schmidt, who shot an even-par 72. “I almost didn’t want this event to start, just because then I know it’s the beginning of the end. But I’m also so excited for this group.
“We only have eight, but we can all compete. We’re a competitive squad, and that will make us better if we’re a competitive eight.”
Schmidt can compete, all right. He qualified for the stroke play portion of the 2019 U.S. Amateur. Alex Butler (1 over), another senior, has been the team’s rock. Junior Angelo Giantsopoulos (2 over) provides the raw ability for low scores, and the rare ability to keep the team loose with a smile, or the accidental uniform mishap – he wore the wrong team polo for Sunday’s first round and wore a vest throughout a humid, 85-degree day to do his best to hide the fashion faux pas.
And Feld watches along with an encouraging word, a calming pointer and an increasingly confident gut.
“He’s a lot sharper, more comfortable in situations than when he first came in,” Butler said. Feld was named interim coach in May 2016 before being given the job full-time that summer. “It’s rare that you see a young coach come in like that and turn the program not around, but just in the right direction quickly for us. That’s cool to see.
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“We have really good chemistry right now between us and him, us and (assistant A.J. Digennaro) and us and the rest of the team.”
The Dragons have reason to be feeling positive and to set expectations high. They traveled to Chambers Bay last season for the Redhawk Invitational hosted by Seattle University and finished fourth among 18 teams. Much of this roster played alongside Pac-12 members UCLA and Oregon State in the final groups.
Two years ago at the Colonial conference championship, they finished third. They entered last year’s final round at Pinehurst No. 8 just four strokes out of the lead before faltering to sixth.
There’s talent. There’s hunger. There’s trust in the young guy in charge.
“It’s unique, given my age and ability to relate to these guys, that I’m not far removed from what they’re going through. I pinpointed that early as an advantage in the recruiting process, to connect with some guys and get a foot in the door where perhaps guys may not have given Drexel a look before,” Feld said. “A lot of it is that I’m still wandering my way in the dark.”
The lightbulb has been glowing for a while, though. He’s asked the right questions. He had the right roster when he began to learn how to do the job his way, with the help of Chris Crawford, who qualified for the U.S. Open as an amateur in 2016 and 2017.
From there, the gut grows more trustworthy.
“It’s been gradual. The guys play well. The better the play, the better morale we have and the less you second-guess anything you’re doing,” he said. “Not every decision I make is the right one, but I still trust in myself.”
His players are unwavering in their allegiance. As much was evident among Feld’s newest charge, freshman David Colleran, who just moved onto campus last Wednesday from the suburban town of Wayne. By Friday, he was on a plane bound for the Hawkeye State. By Sunday afternoon, he was grinding over a slick, 12-foot birdie putt with several feet of break.
Donald Ross greens are not the friendliest welcome to the big time.
There Feld was, however, stepping onto the line for the read. Moments later, Colleran buried the tickler for his first competitive birdie as a collegian.
Trust your coach. Trust his gut.
“I don’t know if I would have made it without his guidance there, and I needed a birdie in that moment,” said Colleran, who carded a 2-over 74. “I needed a birdie in that moment. He’s a calming presence to have there, just to settle you down.”
Feld wants his players to be tested this fall before they retreat to the harsh Pennsylvania winter and the more comforting warmth of their newly-renovated practice facility. Rubbing elbows with top teams from leagues across the country is a worthy foray on this greater path.
“It’s a barometer to accomplishing what we want. We need to compete with and beat schools like that,” Feld said. “Getting the opportunity to play an event like this against that type of competition is exactly what these guys have been asking for. We feel lucky to be here, but we want to take advantage of it.”
That’s where any coach’s magic touch turns tangential. Ultimately, the players swing the clubs and sink the putts. But Schmidt insists that without Feld at the helm, the Dragons wouldn’t be as ready for the moment as they would have been otherwise.
Drexel is ready for its gut check now.
“Each year, we’ve believed in ourselves more. Credit to Coach guiding us in the right direction,” Schmidt said.
“It’s a cool little journey we’re on.”