SALISBURY, N.C. – Trailing Carson-Newman by eight strokes with six holes to play, the situation appeared bleak for Newberry at the rain-shortened 2017 South Atlantic Conference Men’s Golf Championship.
But the Wolves nearly pulled off a comeback for the ages, falling one stroke shy of matching the Eagles and Coker at seven over par and sending the tournament into a three-way playoff.
Carlos Leandro was in the final group of the day, playing with Carson-Newman and Queens, and hit into the bunker to the left of the green on the par-three ninth. Leandro's chip, which cleared a steep, eight-foot embankment, rolled just to the right of the cup and came to rest two feet away from completing the improbable comeback on the ninth and final hole of the day.
Coker and Carson-Newman then battled in a playoff, which at the time of writing was in its fourth playoff hole. The winner receives the SAC's automatic bid to the postseason. [Update] Carson-Newman defeated Coker on the fourth playoff hole to win the team championship.
The tournament was originally scheduled to be a three-day, 54-hole event. But torrential downpours in the Salisbury area rendered the course unplayable on Monday and left four holes on back nine flooded on Tuesday, forcing tournament organizers to shorten the event to 27 holes.
Eleven competitors finished their first rounds early Tuesday before the teams played the front nine with the championship at stake. The five Newberry players combined to go six-over on the first three holes before hitting their stride on the par-four fourth, combining to go one-over through the final six holes to march back into contention, and nearly into the lead.
Playing nine holes in a high-pressure environment will prove to be beneficial to the Wolves later in the postseason, says head coach Howard Vroon.
“It helps us because it’s a great test to go out and play nine holes for the conference tournament. It gave us an opportunity to feel the pressure of the final round of the regional when we’re battling 11 of the top 13 teams in the country for seven spots [in the national finals]. In that sense it’s great.”
The Wolves entered the tournament as the nation’s 10th-ranked team and are undoubtedly assured of a berth to the NCAA South/Southeast Regional in Muscle Shoals, Alabama next month by virtue of their current No. 2 ranking in the Southeast Region. Ten teams from the Southeast Region, 10 from the South Region, and four individuals from each will converge on Muscle Shoals for the regional with seven team spots in the NCAA Championship up for grabs.
Leandro and Ben Thompson and each finished at even par, tied for second with Queens’ Sam Wimbrow and two shots off the pace set by Coker’s Wanjoo Lee. Harry Bolton’s four-over, which placed him in a tie for 15th, gave the Wolves three players in the top 20. Spencer Skiff finished in 26th at six over, with Evan DeGrazia landing one shot back in 32nd.
With the regular-season portion of the schedule complete, Newberry can turn its sights to NCAA postseason play. While playing some of their best golf of the season in a pressure-cooker scenario undoubtedly helped the team’s mental preparation for the regional, Vroon carefully crafted Newberry’s schedule all season to acclimate the Wolves to playing against the top teams in the nation.
Playing in a truncated event on a short course was far from an ideal situation for any of the teams in attendance. But, says Vroon, “that’s why it’s a good thing we’ve been preparing for the regional since August. We’ve had our sights set on it since that time. We plan to go there, to play well, and to show that we’re worthy of going to the national championship."