By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Members of the UVa men’s golf team, coaches and players alike, had resigned themselves to a sixth-place finish at the NCAA East Regional at New Haven, Conn.
That would have been a solid showing by the Cavaliers, who shot 3-over 843, but not enough to earn them a spot in the NCAA championships near Chattanooga, Tenn.
Then the unthinkable happened May 22 in a regional that South Carolina’s Wesley Bryan was leading. Bryan, the last golfer on the course for the Gamecocks, carded a 6-over nine on his final hole, the par-3 ninth.
A bogey would have secured fifth place — and an invitation to the NCAA championships — for South Carolina. Instead, the Gamecocks fell to eighth, and Virginia found itself headed to the NCAAs for the third straight year.
“It was amazing,” UVa head coach Bowen Sargent recalled last week. “I felt awful for Wesley. He’s a good kid, and it was hard to watch.”
At the same time, of course, Sargent was thrilled that his team’s season would continue.
“When you’re ranked 19th in the country and 30 teams go [to the NCAA championships], you certainly feel like you belong there,” he said.
“There were only eight shots that separated [East Regional winner Texas] and us. So we played pretty good. Eight shots in golf is nothing over 12 rounds.”
The Cavaliers are seeded No. 26 in the 30-team field that will compete on The Honors Course outside Chattanooga, starting Tuesday morning. Virginia finished 27th at the NCAAs in 2009 and 26th in 2008.
Senior Kyle Stough, juniors Will Collins and Amory Davis and sophomores Ben Kohles and Henry Smart will represent UVa at the NCAAs. At the East Regional, Smart shot 209 to lead the Wahoos. Collins and Stough were at 211, Davis at 212 and Kohles at 218.
Given that it appeared the Cavaliers’ season would end in New Haven, Sargent said, he wasn’t sure about his players’ mindset going forward.
“I’ve talked to them, trying to kind of judge their feelings there, just so I could kind of know how to handle it and how to present it to them,” he said. “It seems like the overwhelming sentiment right now is the fact that we are a top-20 team and we deserve to be there and we played well enough at regionals to get there.
“It just kind of so happened we came in the back door a little bit, if you will. We were handed a gift, but when you look at it, we’ve played solid all year long, and we certainly played well enough there at the regional.”
The big surprise in New Haven was probably the play of Kohles. Eary in the month, he’d been named ACC co-player of the year, and his average of 71.2 strokes per round leads the ‘Hoos. So his struggles on The Course at Yale were out of character for him.
“He wasn’t on top of his game, and I can’t help but think that he feels like he was something to prove here this week,” Sargent said.
The NCAAs begin with 54 holes of stroke play over three days. In each round, a team counts its four best scores. The top eight teams then advance to match play, which lasts another three days.
Sargent is confident his team can improve on its past two finishes at the NCAA championships.
“I think we’re better than that,” he said. “We’ve played 12 tournaments and finished in the top five 11 times this year. This is a team that’s played very consistent. Obviously this is a tall task to finish in the top five here, but they’re certainly capable.”
Virginia has fared well this spring against Florida State, Florida and Augusta State, three of the other teams in Ooltewah, Tenn., this week.
“We’ve proven that we can play with those top teams,” Sargent said. “I think the hard part is, it’s kind of like the Kentucky Derby has gotten recently. There are so many horses in the race that it gets hard to get in that final eight. There’s so many good teams.
“It could very well come down to one putt or one chip or one drive, and probably will, I’m sure,” Sargent said. “It’s a thin line.”