The Virginia men's golf team opens play at the NCAA Championships Tuesday at The Honors Course near Chattanooga. This season marks the third consecutive year the Cavaliers have advanced to the national championships. Head coach Bowen Sargent, who grew up near the course in Nashville, talks about the upcoming tournament.
What does it mean to return to the NCAA Championships for a third consecutive year, especially at a course close to where you grew up?
Sargent: It means a lot to this program to see the changes that have taken place over the past six years. It is exciting to see where it has progressed and to the point where it is right now. As for going home, it is always neat for me to be able to go back. I have a lot of great memories of me playing at the Honors Course. I played there in the U.S. Am, the State Amateur, the Southern Amateur over the course of my career as a golfer. My parents will be there. My brother (Don) was an assistant pro there for two-and-a-half to three years. It is a special place to me. It has a lot of fond memories.
Henry Smart joined your lineup for the NCAA Regional through team qualifying and led the team with a 16th-place finish. How important was his play last week?
Sargent: It was unbelievable. It has left me second guessing how come I had not been playing him sooner this year. He did earn his position and he played unbelievably well. Jay Fisher, our assistant coach, walked around with him for all three rounds and coached him and it was great to see. He is a great kid and everyone on the team likes Henry. He is a great teammate. I'm excited for him. It is well deserved.
Last year Ben Kohles struggled at the NCAAs, worked hard on his game last summer and came back to win three tournaments this year and was the ACC's co-Player of the Year. Is he using last year's performance at the NCAAs as motivation for this year?
Sargent: I don't know so much that last year will be in the back of his mind so much as that he understands the importance of this week in terms of making All-American. I would have said two weeks ago he was a lock for second or third team All-American. After last week's performance, which the All-America committee weighs heavily the performance at regionals and the NCAA finals, I would say he's probably slipped to third team-maybe honorable mention. If he doesn't have a good week here, he'll definitely be an honorable mention. I would hope, with as good of a year as he's had with three victories, he'd want to capitalize on the opportunity that's in front of him this week.
Having a couple of days now pass, what are your thoughts now on the NCAA Regional and the wild finish that saw your team advance to nationals after a player from another team shot six-over on his final hole, causing that team to drop behind you in the final results.
Sargent: I hope it's divine intervention (laughs). I hope there's some kind of destiny there for us. That remains to be seen, but there was a wide array of emotions in that hour or so, between us finishing that round and eventually what transpired at No. 9 with South Carolina. We went from in, to out, to dead, then we came back to life through another mistake which was unfortunate and hard to watch, but it was neat. It will be interesting to see how the guys handle it, because I think we've been given something and hopefully we can take advantage of it.
What does it mean to have a lineup at NCAAs that features four players who have been there before?
Sargent: One of the things I touched on before Regionals was the experience this team had in terms of successfully getting through regions and knowing the pressure that surrounds those, and I think the NCAAs will be no different. They've been to two, they know the set-up, they know what it's going to be like, they know it's tough-now it's up to them to handle that. They know they're going to have to drive the ball straight, they know they're going to have to have good short games, and that's some of the things we've been working on this week in preparation for The Honors Couse. I hope the experience helps-I can't imagine how it wouldn't.
How do you prepare for such a difficult course where the last time they held the NCAA Championships there the average round score was 77.6 and the only player to shoot under par in the entire field was Tiger Woods?
Sargent: I've already talked to them and warned them because I've played there enough to know. I played the State Am there in '88 when 310 won and that field had Sean McKeel, Doug Baron, and a couple of other guys that are good tour players now. They know, and I hope they value my opinion enough to know. Kyle Stough has been there as well, and he's relayed how difficult this golf course is. They know they're going to get kicked in the teeth-I've already told them that. It's going to happen-it's going to happen to each and every player-but how they respond to it will be the difference in whether we have a good week or whether we don't. They should be prepared for this, having played the last two NCAAs.
How ironic is it that your only senior, Kyle Stough, will play his final college tournament at the same site he played his first collegiate event?
Sargent: It was funny because it's kind of been our battle cry all year, if you will, starting with our very first meeting of the year back in August. I told the guys-it's one of the things I always preach is that we want the program to be better this year than it was the year before-and as long as we continue to do that, we're going to move in the right direction. But the battle cry at the start of the year was to get Kyle back to The Honors Course, where he started his career, and I can't tell you how many times I've said that over the course of the year when I've met with the team. You owe it to your seniors to put them in a good spot, and in this situation, get Kyle back to where his career started. I think it's pretty unique-you don't see that very often-to see a kid start and finish his career on the same golf course. In fact, I'd say it rarely ever happens. I know Kyle's excited about that.