PAnews.com, Port Arthur, Texas

Golf

May 22, 2012

West column: White has LU golf headed back to NCAAs

PORT ARTHUR — Not that you could tell it from my swing or my handicap, but Lamar University’s golf program — it was Lamar Tech then — is why I happened to migrate to Southeast Texas from Missouri in 1965. A guy named Al Chandler, who was the head pro at Columbia Country Club, played for Lamar and nudged me toward Beaumont when I told him I was sick of Missouri winters and wanted to go to school in a warm climate.

That was some 47 years ago. Thanks to talents like Johnny Barlow Jr., Dennis and Larry Walsh, Mike Nugent, Cesar Sanudo and Mike Garrison, I never made the team. But I did root them on to back-to-back NCAA college division championships, while finding a wife, a home and a job whose duties included writing about golf.

Because of the background, I’ve always been interested in the Cardinals golf program. More often than not it’s been good, and at times very good for a school with LU’s limited resources. A lot of the credit for that goes to Lamar being fortunate enough over the past 25 plus year to have had three exceptional coaches — Gregg Grost, Brad McMakin and Brian White.

Grost’s success in the mid 1980s enabled him to follow Billy Tubbs from Lamar to Oklahoma and build the Sooners into a golf power. McMakin’s success, keyed by the signing of PN-G’s Chris Stroud, enabled him to land the Arkansas job and elevate the Razorbacks  program. His successor, Brian White, now in his 13th season with the program and seventh as head coach, has consistently kept the Cardinals flying high.

As you are surely aware by now, Lamar authored a bit of a shocker by finishing fourth in the NCAA regional at Charlotte last week to earn the school’s sixth trip to the NCAA championships. To put in perspective what the Cardinal golfers have done, it’s the equivalent of reaching the Sweet 16 in the NCAA basketball tournament.

For a team that was not ranked in the top 50, what Lamar pulled off in Charlotte was one of those David vs. Goliath accomplishments. Among the teams LU had to beat to advance was No. 9 UNLV, No. 20 Duke, No. 28 Indiana, No. 40 SMU and No. 42 Texas Tech.

White admits he didn’t see it coming.

“It’s a helluva an achievement for this team to make it to the NCAA Tournament,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of ups and downs. But we really came on strong late in the year. In April, we finished second in North Carolina State’s tournament, then came from seven shots back on the final day to win the Southland Conference tourney.

“Our kids really stepped up in the regional. Shooting one-over-par the final day made an impressive statement. It was like the final round in conference. We shot even par in a high wind on a tough course. The kids knew they had to finish strong and they did.”

Lamar’s reward is a trip to historic Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles. Riviera, fondly known as Hogan’s Alley for Ben Hogan’s exploits there, has been the site of a PGA Tour stop for over 50 years.

While nobody on Lamar’s team has ever played at Riviera, White has some familiarity from having been there a couple of times with Stroud for what is known as the Northern Trust Open. The LU coach feels there are two things about Riviera which will work in LU’s favor.

No. 1 is that it’s more of a ball striker’s course and that’s where his players excel. No. 2, Riviera’s poa annua greens will be difficult for teams that putt better than Lamar does.

“I’m really excited about this,” he said. “Not only are we back at the NCAA Championships, but the setting has to be one of the best ever for this event. We are playing on a historic golf course in a glamorous locale like Los Angeles. Both UCLA and USC are in the tournament, so you have to think a lot of folks will be coming out to watch.”

Under the NCAA’s new format adopted for the 2009 championships, there will be three rounds of medal play, then the low four teams advance to match play. And, as Augusta State proved by beating Oklahoma State last year, it’s not impossible for a school considered a mid major to walk off with the championship trophy.

Lamar, of course, made a serious run at the NCAA title the last time it qualified in 2007. With Dawie Van Der Walt leading the way, the Cardinals finished tied for third in what was a 72-hole stroke play format. The Cardinals carded the lowest score by six shots during the final round. Only champion Stanford and runner-up Georgia beat them.

In its other trips to the NCAAs, Lamar finished 21st in 1983, T18 in 1985, T7 in 1986 and T9 in 2006. Best individual finish by a Cardinal was Stroud’s 3rd place in 2003 at Stillwater, Okla. Trevor Dodds in 1985 at Haines City, Fla., and Van Der Walt in 2006 at Sunriver, Ore., finished fourth.  

Best bet for a Cardinal to author a top 10 finish at Riviera would be senior M.J. Daffue. The back-to-back Southland Conference  Player of the Year has won three times this season, owns a 73.0 stroke average and finished T13 at the NCAA regional. He’s posted four scores in the 60s this year, including a career best 65 in the opening round of Royal Oaks Intercollegiate. Daffue went on to win.

Freshman Luke Jerling, like Daffue a South African, has also been on a roll. In his last three tournaments, Jerling finished 7th in the Charlotte regional with a one-over-par 217, tied for 5th in the SLC tourney and won North Carolina State’s Wolfpack Open with a five-under-par, 36-hole score of 139. He’s second in stroke average to Daffue at 73.9.

The No. 3 and 4 players for the Cardinals, based on stroke average, are the Belgian duo of Kevin Hesbois (74.1) and Xavier Feyaerts (74.4). Erik Knudson from Norway, who fired a final round 71 at the NCAA regional,  is LU’s No. 5 man with a 75.8 average.

White, meanwhile, was recently named SLC Coach of the Year for the third time in his six years since replacing McMakin.  As an LU assistant or head coach, he’s been part of teams that have won eight of the past 12 conference titles and teams that have advanced to the NCAA regionals in 10 of the last 11 years. Underscoring that the term coach really fits, he still works with Stroud, Van Der Walt and other former Cardinals pursuing professional careers on their swings.

How Lamar has managed to hang on to him this long, I can’t explain. But as sort of an alum of the Cardinals golf program, I couldn’t be happier about it.  

    Sports editor Bob West can be e-mailed at rdwest@usa.net

  

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