By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — During his practice round Thursday in New London, N.C., Ben Rusch was playing so poorly that Bowen Sargent considered pulling the sophomore from Switzerland out of the ACC men’s golf tournament. Sargent, UVa’s coach, let Rusch know as much.
“Basically I was trying to get his attention,” Sargent recalled Monday. “Obviously I wanted him to play. But he’s real hard on himself, and he was going through the practice round and his body language was bad. Usually when he gets like that, he goes on to have a bad week. I just told him, ‘This isn’t the week for you to go around feeling sorry for yourself. We’re not going to have a pity party.’
“I knew we had a good shot [to win the tournament], and in order for us to play well, Ben had to play well.”
In what ranks among his wisest decisions he’ll ever make as a coach, Sargent kept Rusch in the Cavaliers’ lineup for the 54-hole tournament at the Old North State Club. No. 20 Virginia could not overtake Georgia Tech for the team title, finishing in second place, but Rusch (pronounced Roosh) shot rounds of 67, 70 and 69 for a 206 total.
That was one stroke better than Wake Forest’s Lee Bedford, and it made Rusch the first golfer from UVa to win the ACC men’s title since Pete Arend in 1955.
“It’s nice for the school to have a winner again,” said Rusch, who was not among the golfers who competed for UVa in the 2011 ACC tournament.
Sargent said: “It speaks a little to the history of Virginia golf, to some extent. It’s probably not the most storied past, but you’ve also got to look at the conference as a whole.”
Indeed, the list of former ACC champions includes such luminaries as Arnold Palmer, Lanny Wadkins, Jay Haas, Curtis Strange, Scott Hoch, Davis Love III, David Duval and Bryce Molder. And now Rusch can call himself a member of that fraternity.
“It’s pretty special to be up there with all these names, and I hope my name can be just as big as these guys, but we’ll see,” Rusch said. “The future will tell.”
Dr. Bob Rotella, the famed sports psychologist, played in a role in the victory, Rusch said. At the urging of teammate Ben Kohles, the two-time ACC player of the year, Rusch called Rotella on Thursday night.
Rotella, who works with the golf teams at UVa, told “me to stay calm and accept whatever happens,” Rusch said. “If you make a bad shot, just find it and hit it again. Just try to make the best thing out of every situation. Coming down the stretch, I kept telling myself, ‘This is not that important. It’s just a game.’ “
Sargent said: “Doc obviously is the best in the world at what he does. I can’t even hold a candle to him. My style is a little more direct and to the point. My message was, ‘You gotta start believing in Ben Rusch, and if you don’t, we gotta get somebody else in here.’ “
The victory was only Rusch’s second as a Cavalier. (The first came last year in the 36-hole Cavalier Classic at Birdwood.) In a rainy final round, he bogeyed Nos. 15 and 16 before steadying himself and parring the last two holes Sunday.
“He’s very deserving,” Sargent said. “I don’t know of anybody who works any harder.”
Not until late in the final round did Rusch know for sure that he was still leading the tournament. He could have done without that knowledge.
“I made a good up and down for bogey on 16, and then on 17 there’s a leaderboard, you can’t miss it, it’s right in front of the tee box,” Rusch recalled. “I wanted not to look at it, but I looked up, and there was my name on top. So I knew where I was, and it kind of made me nervous.”
So how does a young man from Switzerland end up in the land of Jefferson? Sargent’s seniors in 2009-10 included Steven Rojas, who’s from Aadorf, Switzerland, and Rojas played matchmaker.
Rusch, who’s from Weinfelden, wanted to play golf at a school in the United States, and Rojas recommended UVa. To Sargent, Rojas spoke highly of Rusch.
“I talked to several coaches on the East Coast, and then it pretty much came down to Georgia State and UVa,” said Rusch, who is likely to major in international relations and politics. “Steven just told me it’s a good school, it’s a good golf program, so it made it pretty easy.”
Rusch e-mailed Sargent around Christmas 2009 and received a quick response.
“I could tell by looking at his swing on video, and I trusted [Rojas] enough to know,” Sargent said. “He had played here for three years and knew the level of play.”
Back home in Switzerland, Rusch’s father watched the final two holes of the ACC championships on-line Sunday. He was the one who introduced Rusch to a sport that’s growing in popularity in Switzerland.
“He was the first to start [playing],” Rusch said, “and then he just took me to the range a couple times. I actually didn’t really like it in the beginning, but once I got better I started to like it.”
Rusch, 22, is not your average second-year student at UVa, and not only because he’s from Europe. Switzerland has mandatory military service for males, and Rush spent 21 months in the Swiss army.
“It was pretty rough,” he said. “Sometimes we had to sleep outside when it was like negative 10 degrees for a couple nights.”
He smiled. “It makes you appreciate the little things, like sleeping in a bed.”
Next up for Rusch and his teammates is an NCAA regional, May 19-21, at a site to be determined. Rusch will enter as the reigning ACC champion, a distinction that no one who saw him struggling through his practice round Thursday would have predicted.
“It definitely shows me that I can play well, even when I don’t have my best game coming into a week,” Rusch said. “So that gives me a lot of confidence to know I don’t have to have a perfect golf swing to play.”