By: Will Jones ’19
For the first time since 1968, the Davidson College Men’s Golf Team has won the conference championship and secured a place at NCAA Regionals later this month. The ‘Cats claimed the title in dramatic wire-to-wire fashion, firing a blistering +27 team score over 54 holes at the Grand Cypress Resort in Orlando, FL, trumping the University of Dayton by 6 strokes. The ‘Cats were paced out front by the phenomenal play of Mike Blasey ‘19, who claimed the individual conference title by two shots over Brody King of the University of Rhode Island.
By no means was this a surprise victory; the team knew that they had what it took to challenge for the win come Sunday. According to Head Coach Tim Straub, the key to the ‘Cats success was confidence in their ability to play consistent golf. “As a team, we knew if we played well all three days, we would be in the fight for the team title,” Straub confided. “I definitely felt our team had the talent to win.” Blasey spoke with me about the importance of approaching each round one shot at a time. “You have to trust the process,” Blasey explained. “It’s golf: anyone can beat anyone on any given day. You have to take it one shot at a time for the whole round rather than give up on a round after a string of bad holes.”
This mentality was the product of a grueling season of ups and downs. After a somewhat disappointing fall season, the ‘Cats were determined to build their confidence throughout the spring in preparation for the conference tournament. Yet, they still had some difficulties putting together those three consistent rounds. At the Wexford Invitational earlier this spring, Davidson shot 11 and 13-over-par in the first two rounds, respectively, before the wheels came off in a final round performance of +30, dropping the ‘Cats down the leaderboard into a tie for 14th. A similar slip in the second round of the A-10 Championship last year dropped the team out of position on the leaderboard to make any effective moves on the final day. According to Jack Lang ‘19, last year’s individual A-10 champion, “The goal this year was the same as last year: put ourselves in position on the final nine of round three where we had a chance.” The difference this year lay in the players’ confidence to do so.
Indeed, the spark was there from the beginning of the first round. Drawing the earliest tee times on the day, the boys fired +12 for the day, paced by +1 and +2 efforts from Hoke Carlton ‘19 and Blasey respectively (good for 4th and 6th at the end of the day). The early start times gave the ‘Cats a bit of a bonus, as the reduced morning winds made the already difficult North/South layout of Grand Cypress play a little easier than it would later in the day. While last year’s tournament was played at the shorter and more open New Course, the North/South layout added distance and narrowed the landing zones off the tee, making accurate driving a must. Dogged with perennial struggles with his driver, Blasey fired a -1 on the front nine, before dropping a string of late bogeys to finish at +2. However, Blasey was not fazed, as he revealed in a post-tournament interview; “I always feel like I can judge my game based on how many birdies I can make.” Blasey stole 5 birdies on Friday and went on to bag 15 over the three days, leading the field for the tournament. “I knew my game was on and that I would be able to card birdies and make up for those bad holes.”
However, the ‘Cats couldn’t rest easy after their first round. They ended the day tied for first with Dayton, with four more schools still within 5 strokes of the lead. On a much windier second round, the team fired a +6 score, 8 shots better than Dayton and 15 better than the rest of the field, propelling themselves into solo first by a comfortable margin. Blasey and first-year Alex Ross shot the two best second rounds of the field at -2 and E, while Lang and Carlton brought up the rest of the team score at +3 and +5 respectively. Blasey’s round propelled him into solo first by two shots, with Ross close behind in solo 3rd. And yet, for being in uncharted territory for the season, the ‘Cats showed no signs of nerves. As it had been all year, the mantra was confidence in each other and oneself, and it showed in the final round.
The ‘Cats never looked back, as they fired a +9 effort in the final round to clinch the 6 stroke victory. Paced once more by +2 efforts from Blasey, Ross, and Carlton, it was sophomore Michael Freeman’s clutch +3 performance that tightened the team’s spread on the last day. After struggling in the first two rounds, Freeman stepped up and came through huge in the final round to give the ‘Cats the edge they needed over Dayton. Meanwhile, Blasey took a 3 stroke lead into the back nine over Brody King, but saw some difficulties on the par-5’s. After a wayward drive cost him a dropped shot, Blasey took a double bogey on the par-5 11th, but made it up with consecutive birdies on holes 13 and 14. However, a tough triple bogey on the 600-yard par-5 15th brought Blasey back to only a shot over King. “That was a monster hole,” Blasey recalled. “I lost another tee shot in the water, hit a couple of squirrely shots and had to make a 20-foot putt to save the triple.”
Blasey was unfazed, however, and knew he could score on the last stretch. Coming into the 18th green, he was faced with an 80-yard half-wedge for his third shot while King had a short birdie attempt awaiting on the green. A two-stroke swing here would have forced a tie at the top, but Blasey fired one in close and made the putt to seal the victory.
“I didn’t realize until I got to the scorer’s table after the round that I had actually won,” Blasey admitted. “To me, the team score was so much bigger than the individual title because it is so hard to get four guys playing well at the right time for three days on a course like that.” Straub was impressed with the development of his athletes, especially Ross, who earned the A-10 Freshman of the Year award, as well as Top Freshman Honors with his 3rd place finish on Sunday.
From here, the ‘Cats await the results of the NCAA selection show on Wednesday, May 2nd to determine where they will play their regional tourney. In the meantime, the preparation is the same for this tournament as with the conference championship: stay committed to the process.
“Going into conference, everyone was having a lot of fun playing golf,” according to Lang, himself no stranger to the Regionals atmosphere. “If we maintain that mindset and focus on the things we can control, we can maybe put ourselves in a position to make the national championship.” Straub looks forward to Regionals as “another great opportunity to keep improving as a team and a program.” While the ‘Cats are savoring this moment, their focus is dead set on regionals and the challenges that lay ahead. Progress and consistency, the keys to the team’s success so far, will keep driving the team forward, one shot at a time.