BRADENTON, Fla. -- There was something different Tuesday at the Concession Golf Club for the men’s golf championships. The past four days have seen the field of the nation’s top collegiate golfers deal with scorching hot temperatures. Tuesday, they played under a canopy of rainclouds, and much cooler conditions.
That didn’t stop the upstart Georgia Bulldogs from remaining one of the hottest teams in the tournament. They were the first to advance from this morning’s quarterfinals. The Bulldogs came out of Day 1 on top and have remained near the top all week, as they were able to defeat USF 4-1-0 in match play after the 15th hole. They knew after the first day that the semis were a possibility.“After the first round of stroke play people we’re looking at us like, ‘Georgia? What’s Georgia doing here -- they’re ranked 33rd?’ ” Bulldogs junior Lee McCoy said. “Nobody picked us to be in match play, much less get to match play easily and then win our first match with not much of an issue. As soon as we came out of the gate and got on top of the leaderboard, it gave us a lot of confidence. We knew we could do it then. Getting to the stage and actually pulling it off is a whole other deal.”
For McCoy, the fifth-ranked golfer in the field, the past two days of the tournament have been his best. McCoy had a slow, but by no means poor, start to the tournament. He came out of Day 1 1-over, struggled on Day 2 in posting a 5-over and played better Day 3 with a 2-over. Posting a 2-under on Monday, McCoy demonstrated that his confidence had returned.
“It’s gotten better and better each round,” McCoy said. “The third day I actually played some good golf, but made a couple of really bad swings and threw my round away. It happens, you can’t close your eyes for a second on this golf course. Today was by far the best round I have played. I would have shot 5 or 6-under today. It was easy, it was fun golf instead of grinding all day.”
It was a bittersweet end for South Florida. The host college for the championships came to Bradenton for the first time in school history. Under the tutelage of rookie head coach Steve Bradley, the Bulls turned some heads. The program may have come into the tournament as newbies, but they are leaving seasoned veterans.
“Obviously it means a lot for our program,” Bradley said. “What we’re trying to build here, in experience this year and year out, can only help that. It’s invaluable experience, and one that we hadn’t been in before and I thought we handled it very well.”
Before the tournament had started, Bradley was concerned his players may feel a bit of nerves and excitement heading into the program's first championship. Freshman of the Year Claudio Correa came out and shot a 4-under on the first day at Concession, which helped ease the Bulls' anxiousness.
“It certainly helped,” Bradley said. “If you look at what we have done throughout the season, we've had one guy play really well every round and then the guys would rally the troops after that. I think it settled him down, being a freshman. We played hard, I don’t think we played great this week, and we ran into a better team today.”
Now, Bradley and his Bulls are heading back down the road to Tampa after their first taste of quarterfinal play. They are a much stronger and mature team than they were at the beginning of the 2014-15 season, as they have all grown together.
“It was pretty cool,” Bradley said, holding back tears. “It’s the reason we coach. To see their maturation, and how far they've grown. How much they believe in themselves and how much they support each other is really cool.”
There were still two matches that needed deciding. Fifth place USC and fourth place Texas went back and fourth on the front nine before USC quickly began to take control. Sean Crocker, Bobby Gojuangco and Rico Hoey won their matches to get USC into the semifinals with a 3-0-2 victory. It would not be that easy for Illinois and UCLA in the final match of the quarterfinals.
It would go down to the last Illinois shot on 18 to decide the victor. UCLA led 3-0-2 heading into the back nine when Charlie Danielson, ranked No. 19 in the field, would turn the momentum by taking four holes in a row to defeat Jake Knapp. As the rain began to fall, and the match tied at 2 a piece, freshman Nick Hardy and Preston Valder headed into the 17th hole all square.
Hardy took the lead by parring hole 17 when Valder double bogeyed. The stage was set. Freshman versus senior coming down the home stretch. Both would land their second shot to the left of the pin on a very tricky 18th green. When Hardy hit his par putt for the win, he was fist pumping before it dropped.
“That was the perfect example of why they went to match play,” Illinois head coach Mike Small said. “The interest and the intensity for the people following it.
"We came out a little flat today, but UCLA came out strong. They made some putts and got on us early. My hats off for them. I have so much respect for Derek and his program. They’re good kids. They were competing hard, they handled themselves great, but we turned the momentum around. When Charlie started getting going there, that changed things.”
“Eighteen is a tough hole, so I knew if I hit the fairway and the green, I’d give myself a good shot to close it out,” Hardy said. “I had a tough two putt over that hole. I knew if I put it past the hole I’d have an easier putt to come down. I did what I needed to do.
"I feel good, that’s what I practice for. Coach calls [me and fellow freshman Dylan Meyer] sophomores now, so that’s why he put us in that spot.”
Small has the confidence in his Illini, especially Meyer and Hardy. Now, the two newly appointed sophomores will see what they can do in the semifinals.
“May as well throw them in there,” Small said. “Why sit around and pamper them and baby them? Put them in there and let them go.”