By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — For golf fans, this weekend brings the final opportunity to see the UVa men’s team compete this spring on its home course.
It will also be the first chance to do so. The Cavaliers opened the season in Aiken, S.C., and since then have played in tournaments at Statesboro, Ga., Charleston, S.C., Raleigh, N.C., and New London, N.C.
In New London, UVa placed second at the ACC championships — its best showing in that event since 1996. The 21st-ranked Wahoos will look to continue their strong play Saturday and Sunday when they host the 23rd annual Cavalier Classic at Birdwood Golf Course.
Among the teams coming to town for the 36-hole tournament is N.C. State, whose best player, Matt Hill, is the defending NCAA champion.
The ‘Hoos are scheduled to begin play around 9:20 a.m. Saturday. Virginia’s B team will start around 11:10 a.m.
“For us, it’s a good chance to win heading into regionals and gain a lot of confidence,” said Bowen Sargent, who’s in his sixth year as UVa’s coach.
The fields for the six NCAA regionals will be announced Monday. The Cavaliers’ goal: to play well enough at their regional to qualify for a school-record third straight trip to the 30-team NCAA championships. The NCAAs are June 1-6 at Ooltewah, Tenn., near Chattanooga.
The Cavalier Classic is open to the public, and there’s no charge for admission. The forecast calls for temperatures in the 80s in Charlottesville this weekend, and that should mean a pleasant experience for spectators.
For much of the winter, conditions weren’t good for anyone at Birdwood, especially Sargent’s golfers, thanks to the record-setting snowfall that blanketed Central Virginia.
“Probably in retrospect it didn’t hurt us all that much,” he said, “but when we were going through it, it felt like we were just getting pummeled. But we were able to chip and putt the whole time, which I think really helped us.”
Dating back to the start of the school year, UVa has played in 10 tournaments. Only once have the ‘Hoos failed to finish in the top 5.
“This is the best team I’ve had since I’ve been here,” Sargent said, “but this is one of the few teams I’ve had that hasn’t won.”
The Cavaliers, of course, hope to fill that hole on their 2009-10 résumé this weekend. If UVa is to win the 11-team tournament, Ben Kohles and Will Collins probably must finish among the individual leaders.
Kohles, a sophomore, leads Virginia with a 71.13 stroke average. Collins is second, at 72.40, and the junior from Salisbury, N.C., is coming off a second-place finish at the ACC tournament.
“For us to play well, they have to play well,” Sargent said, “and they have all year.”
Virginia’s showing at the ACC championships didn’t surprise Sargent. A season ago, the Cavaliers were ninth, with a three-round score of 869. Had they shot a mere four strokes better, however, they would have tied for fourth.
“This conference is just so strong,” Sargent said, “somebody’s going to finish ninth and have a pretty good team.”
The future appears promising for UVa men’s golf. Among those expected back next year are Kohles, Collins, Amory Davis, Mac McLaughlin and Bruce Woodall, who’s out with an injury this spring. Woodall broke an ankle, Sargent said with a rueful smile, while trying to dunk a basketball.
“I think next year’s team should be better,” Sargent said. “This should be a top-10 team next year.”
And if that happens, expect more milestones for the ‘Hoos.
“As we’ve gotten better every year, we’ve gotten our foot in the door with better recruits,” Sargent said. “I hope that trend continues.”