Today marks the beginning of the 2010 NCAA Men’s Golf Championship to be held at the Honors Course in Ooltewah near Chattanooga, Tenn., and Georgia Southern is one of just 30 teams that remain in the hunt for a national title, returning to the championships for the first time since 2005.
The Eagles earned a spot in the field after an impressive showing at the Southeast Regional.
Two weeks ago, GSU traveled to Alpharetta to compete against 12 other schools at the Capital City Club Crabapple Course.
Needing to place amongst the top five teams to advance to the national championship, the Eagles came up big.
GSU came from five strokes in back of fifth place on the tournament’s final day, scoring just 2-over par as a team — the second best round of the day — to finish in a tie for fourth place and book its tee time for the Honors Course.
“I was very proud of our guys to play so well,” said GSU coach Larry Mays. “We’re definitely happy to be (in the national championship), but just getting here isn’t the endgame. We want to go out and play some quality rounds, make it to match play, and maybe have a chance to win it.”
This season marks the second year of the new format to decide a national champion.
Until last year, total stroke play throughout the course of the tournament was combined to crown a winning team, but now a combination of stroke and match play makes up the championship.
The first three days of the tournament will be stroke play. Five members from each team will play 18 holes and the four lowest scores from each team will be added to form the team score.
After the third round, the lowest eight team scores will advance to the match play round. From there, the remaining teams will go head-to-head until two teams remain for Sunday’s final round.
Last year, Texas A&M – which returns to this week’s field – won the inaugural match play title, besting Arkansas by a 3-2 margin.
While match play – which contrasts greatly with stroke play – requires more strategy and would be a new experience for the Eagles, GSU is focusing on handling the first three days of play before worrying about changing tactics.
“Match play is definitely something that’s in the back of everyone’s mind,” said Mays. “It’s a lot different, and as the coach, I’ve thought of how we’ll handle it.
“The important thing is getting there though. We need to shoot well early and figure out match play when we get to it.”
To qualify as one of those final eight teams, the Eagles will need to get the same type of consistency — all five players shot 2-over or better in the final round of the regional — that has gotten them to Ooltewah.
“It’s going to take a great team effort,” said Mays. “This is the highest level of competition we can get to. We’re going up against some great teams and will really have to be on top of things.”
The Eagles’ roster for the national championship is still green, but has proven that it can step up in crucial situations.
Junior Logan Blondell leads the way, as his 2-under performance in Alpharetta was good for second place among all individuals at the regional.
Senior and Academic All-American Spence Fulford was one of two Eagles – along with Blondell - with postseason experience before the regional and will again be depended on to provide consistency throughout his first three rounds.
Matt Deal and Ryan Zabroske, seniors, are just now coming into their own, but have contributed greatly to GSU’s run. Both were instrumental in the Eagles’ late charge in the regional — Zabroske shot an even-par 70 while Deal made nine straight pars coming in for a 72 — and need to repeat those performances to give GSU a shot at a title.
Florian Sander is the baby of the group. A redshirt sophomore, Sander played like a seasoned veteran in Alpharetta.
Sander was the only Eagle to improve his score in each round, and he went 1-under on his final nine at the regional to shoot even on the day.
“We weren’t very seasoned going into the regional,” said Mays. “Playing in the national championship will be another new experience, but I think that our showing in the regional has given us a lot of confidence. Now we just need to go out there and play some good golf.”
GSU will be paired with Baylor and Louisiana State for the first two rounds of the tournament. Teams will be repaired according to the standings before the third round. The Eagles tee off on the front nine at 8:35 a.m.
Mike Anthony can be reached at (912) 489-9404.