Emphatic 18-stroke victory in Prescott propels Lopes to #1 national ranking
By: Jim Howell/GCU Club Sports Information Director
For two days in April, Antelope Hills Golf Course became ‘Lope Hills’.
Using an overall confidence that belied the fact that the team itself hadn’t played the course before, the Grand Canyon University Club Men’s Golf ‘A’ team won the National Collegiate Club Golf Association (NCCGA) Desert Region 2 Tournament this past weekend at Antelope Hills Golf Course in Prescott. The Lopes posted an overall team score of 740, 18 strokes better than their nearest pursuer, defending national co-champion Arizona State University. The win avenged a close, two-stroke loss to the Sun Devils in the Desert Region 1 Tournament held in February at ASU’s home course in Tempe, and qualified the Lopes for the 2018 NCCGA National Tournament, which will be held April 27 through 29 in St. Louis, Missouri. The victory also sent the Lopes to the top of the NCCGA Spring National Rankings going into the national tournament. In addition, GCU’s Joey Russo was the tournament’s individual medalist, winning the individual side by four strokes over ASU’s T.J. Kathrineberg, and moving to 2nd in the national individual rankings behind Kathrineberg.
The Lopes had been preparing for this moment since walking off the 18th green at Ken McDonald Golf Course in Tempe in late February-feeling like they had let the first regional title of the spring season slip through their collective fingers.
“Knowing that ASU had played the first regional on their home course and had only won by three strokes, we were confident that we could go up to Antelope Hills and win it,” said Lopes’ Head Coach John Wasson.
One confidence-builder that Wasson didn’t have going into Saturday’s opening round, though, was familiarity. Although a couple of the Lopes’ players had previous experience playing Antelope Hills as individuals, the team headed to Prescott early Saturday not having any practice rounds to prepare.
“It’s really helpful to get the guys out there to see the course before the tournament starts,” said Wasson. “They can get a feel for where to hit the shots, learn the speed of the greens and things like that. It’s important to get those in, but for whatever reason, we just haven’t been able to do that this year. But it doesn’t matter now. We still were able to get the win.”
The Lopes actually went into Sunday’s final round in ‘maintain’ mode, since they spent Saturday on Antelope Hills’ North Course (par 71) building a formidable 14-stroke lead over 2nd-place Golf Academy of America-Chandler with a collective 368. Russo-the senior from Monterey, California-paced the way, posting the only subpar round of the first day with a 4-under-par 67, and closing out the round with four birdies in his last six holes. Kathrineberg was five strokes off the pace of Russo with a 72, following a trio of players at 73, including Lopes’ senior Jordan Yamamoto.
The Sun Devils-who began Sunday’s round a full 20 strokes behind the Lopes, made up ground on the South Course (par 72) on Sunday, thanks to Kathrineberg and Jack Hiemenz, who both led the way with a pair of 2-under-par 70 scores. Russo only needed to play consistent golf on the second day to take the individual title, and he did just that with three bogeys, two birdies, and an eagle on the 12th hole for a final-round 71 to wind up with a final score of 138, four strokes better than Kathrineberg, and seven better than Yamamoto, who finished tied for 3rd. Russo wasn’t worried about his competition, though, since all he could do was focus on his game.
“We don’t have a leaderboard that follows us around,” said Russo. “Going into Sunday, I knew I had a cushion, but I just tried to do the same thing I did on Saturday: don’t make any mental mistakes and play smart golf, which helped me.”
Russo and Yamamoto were bolstered by the trio of freshman Tyler Whittaker, senior Tristan Koyl and grad student Ryan Teed, who all finished tied for 7th with scores of 154. As for the team results, the Lopes’ collective 740 easily took the top spot, following by 2nd-place ASU’s 758, and 3rd-place GAA-Chandler’s 769 (3rd place). The Lopes’ ‘B’ team finished with a combined 801 for a 5th-place finish-despite the fact that Wasson had to move some of his ‘B’ team players up to the ‘A’ team for the tournament due to the absences of some of the team’s top players.
The Lopes now advance to the NCCGA National Championship-a place that brought them the runner-up trophy last May, narrowly missing a championship by two strokes to the University of Georgia. This time, though, the Lopes will be the ones the other 26 teams converging on Norwood Hills Country Club in St. Louis will be gunning for, having ascended to the #1 spot in the national rankings from their performance in Prescott.
“Having the top ranking is important. It gives us confidence,” remarked Wasson. “I worry that it gives us a little too much confidence, but I’d rather be there than 2nd or 3rd.”
“I think as a team, it’s where we wanted to be this entire time,” added Russo. “It’s something that I’m not going to think about much-to have that target on my back-because it won’t help me mentally. I’m just going to go in and play two good rounds of golf.”
Like last year’s tournament, which was held in Hot Springs, Arkansas, Wasson knows he has only a couple of weeks to get his players to understand that in St. Louis in late April, it won’t just be powerhouse opponents like ASU, Georgia, Florida and Alabama that could provide extra adversity to prevent a national title.
“Being out here in the west, we play in dry conditions, and it’s a totally different beast with the humidity (in the Midwest),” Wasson said. “I just need to tell them, ‘Hey, guys. It’s a different climate. You have to stay hydrated.’ We’ll definitely have a practice round this time around, and hopefully, that will help.”
The team will play a practice round at the host site, Norwood Hills Country Club in St. Louis on Friday, the 27th, before taking the course for real Saturday and Sunday. While the coach may be concerned, his star player will just take the weather as it comes.
“I haven’t given it too much thought,” said Russo about the Missouri moisture. “Arkansas was OK as far as weather conditions, and I’ve never been to St. Louis, so I’m just going in with an open mind.”