The Excitement of a New College Season is Here
By Ron Balicki
Norman, OK - This is the time of the year when I get excited. It’s the start of yet another college golf season. And this time around I’d have to say I’m especially excited.
Because I believe the 2010-11 season is going to be one of the most interesting, entertaining and highly competitive ones to come our way in quite some time.
And, it seems, every part of the country will have a couple -- or more -- star performers playing a major role over the next nine months.
Parity has been a part of Division I for years and, to me, this time around it will be at its tallest height.
Consider this. Of the eight teams that advanced to match play at last season’s NCAA Championship, seven return at least four members of their starting lineups. Two of those, Augusta State, the reigning national tournament champions, and Oregon, which lost in the semifinal round, have all five of those starters coming back.
Or how about this. Of the 30-team starting field at the Honors Course last June, eight are not losing a single starter while another 11 have four of their five coming back.
Then there’s another 8-10 teams that I think will make an impact during the season -- ones that didn’t even qualify for the NCAA finals in ‘10.
Plus throw in a very talented class of freshmen coming into programs throughout the country who will certainly make their presence known and you have the makings of one hum-dinger of a season.
But now it’s time to narrow down this long list.
So, for what it’s worth -- does the tag Wrong Ron ring any bells -- here is my 2010-11 pre-season top 10 Division I teams:
1. Oklahoma State -- No surprise here as the Cowboys seem to be at the top of everyone’s pre-season rankings list. And why not. Oklahoma State was ranked No. 1 throughout last season before finishing runner-up (after again being the top stroke-play qualifier) at the last NCAA. Coach Mike McGraw has four starters back (losing only graduated Trent Whitekiller) and three of those are among the best in the nation. Leading the way is junior Peter Uihlein, a first-team All-America, a 2009 U.S. Walker Cup member, and winner last month of the U.S. Amateur Championship. Senior Kevin Tway, who won the Players Amateur this summer, and junior Morgan Hoffmann, also a 2009 U.S. Walker Cupper, were second-team All-America last season. Sophomore Sean Einhaus of Germany is a solid No. 4 man. Battling for a lineup spot are senior Mark Johnson, redshirt freshman Kevin Dougherty, a former California high school champion, and incoming freshmen and past AJGA All-Americans Talor Gooch and Patrick Winther. And, don’t forget, the 2011 NCAA Championship will be played on the Cowboys’ home turf of Karsten Creek Golf Club.
2. Stanford -- The Cardinal lost NCAA starter Joseph Bramlett and Jordan Cox to graduation, but have four solid returning players, led by junior third-team All-America David Chung, who is coming off a most impressive summer where he won the Porter Cup and Western Amateur while finishing runner-up at the U.S. Amateur. Also back are senior honorable mention All-Americans Sihwan Kim and Steve Ziegler, both of whom placed in the top seven at this year’s Northeast Amateur, and sophomore Andrew Yun, winner of this year’s Dogwood Invitational. With a quartet of other roster returnees and a few solid incoming freshman, coach Conrad Ray is deep in talent.
3. Augusta State -- With all five starters back from the school’s first NCAA title, coach Josh Gregory and the Jaguars certainly appear to have what it takes to become the first team since Houston in 1984-85 to win back-to-back national tournament titles. Leading the way are a pair of second-team All-Americans, junior Patrick Reed and senior Henrik Norlander. Also back are junior Taylor Floyd, senior Mitch Krywulycz and senior Carter Newman. The Jags also add Minnesota transfer Derek Chang, who has won the last two Southeastern Amateurs, to the roster.
4. UCLA -- The Bruins were solid last season with a roster that included one junior (Connor Driscoll), two sophomores and four freshmen. Bigger and better things are still to come. Leading the way for coach Derek Freeman’s squad are honorable mention All-Americans, juniors Gregor Main and Alex Shi Yup Kim. Sophomores Pontus Widegren of Sweden and Pedro Figueiredo of Portugal also had some shining moments last season along with fellow sophomores Mario Clemens and Bobby Lange. And expect incoming freshman Patrick Cantlay to have an impact after finishing second this summer at the Southern Amateur and reaching the semifinals of the U.S. Amateur.
5. Georgia -- I don’t think I’ve ever had a team which didn’t qualify for the NCAA finals ranked this high in the pre-season. But these Bulldogs deserve it -- heck, No. 5 may even be underscoring their potential. The top three Dawgs rank right up there with the lead trio from rival Oklahoma State. Seniors Russell Henley, a first-team All-America last season and Hogan Award finalist, and Harris English, a second-teamer, are reunited with senior Hudson Swafford, a two-time second-team All-America who redshirted last season while recovering from shoulder surgery. Swafford appears back in form and with sophomore Bryce Macpherson of Australia, coach Chris Haack has a fearsome foursome in which to build upon.
6. Oregon -- Coach Casey Martin has done a fantastic job in molding this into one of the premier programs in the country. And, with all five NCAA starters returning, there’s no reason why the Ducks won’t be serious contenders for the No. 1 spot. Junior Eugene Wong of Canada leads the way after earning first-team All-America honors last season as well as being named by the Golf Coaches Association of America as its Jack Nicklaus Award winner as Division I player of the year. Also back are junior Daniel Miernicki, a second-team All-America, junior Andrew Vijarro and seniors Jack Dukeminier and Isaiah Telles. Plus, there’s plenty of additional depth on the Duck roster.
7. Texas A&M -- Coach J.T. Higgins will have to fill the big hole left by graduating senior Andrea Pavan, a first-team All-America, but he has plenty of talented players who can step up. There are 10 players from last season’s roster coming back, including 5 of the top 6. Leading the way are honorable mention All-Americans, sophomore Cameron Peck and junior Jordan Russell. Also back are seniors Ignacio (Nacho) Elvira, Conrad Shindler, and John Hurley and junior Geoff Shaw. Shindler and Hurley were members of the Aggies’ 2009 NCAA title-winning squad.
8. Georgia Tech -- In past years, Tech always seemed to have one of the country’s super stars leading the way to success, i.e., Stewart Cink, David Duval, Matt Kuchar, Bryce Molder, Troy Matteson, Cameron Tringale. That top-level caliber of player wasn’t there last season (although senior Chesson Hadley was an honorable mention All-America). Still, coach Bruce Heppler’s Yellow Jackets finished in the top 15 in the rankings and advanced to match play at the NCAA finals. Four NCAA starters return, led by honorable mention All-American seniors J.T. Griffin and Paul Haley. Also back are senior Kyle Scott and junior James White. Also look for freshman Richard Werenski to make some major contributions. Still, what Tech needs is for someone to step up and join those elite of Georgia Tech past.
9. Alabama -- The Crimson Tide had a roller coaster ride of a season in 2009-10, finishing it off in a most disappointing fashion with a 10th at Adminstaff, 12th at the SEC and 9th at the NCAA East Regional (thus not qualifying for the NCAA finals). A top-10 pre-season ranking could be stretching it as coach Jay Seawell will be depending a lot on a pair of incoming freshmen -- Cory Whitsett and Bobby Wyatt. But these are two very talented young men with Whitsett being the 2007 U.S. Junior champion and Wyatt shooting a 57 this summer in winning the Alabama State Junior crown. Giving the Tide lineup leadership and a solid 1-2 punch are Bud Cauley, a second-team All-America and 2009 U.S. Walker Cup performer, and Hunter Hamrick, an honorable mention All-America.
10. Texas -- The key for coach John Fields will be getting consistent, solid play from his Nos. 4 and 5 slots. The Longhorns lost two proven performers to graduation in Charlie Holland and Lance Lopez. But they return three All-Americans who should provide a solid foundation to build on. Leading the way are sophomore Cody Gribble (3rd team), junior Dylan Frittelli (3rd team) and senior Bobby Hudson (honorable mention). Fields has plenty of potential to fill in the last two spots. Now we have to see who, if anyone, will step up and do just that.
Well, that’s my pre-season top 10. But as I look at the rest, I realize there are so many others that have the potential to play their way into a top 10 ranking spot. The best part of it all, some of them will do just that.
Now you know why I’m so excited coming into the 2010-11 season. It’s going to be a beauty, that’s for sure.
So, let the games begin and come the first week in June, let’s see who are the survivors.