NEWBERRY – With the biggest tournament of his coaching career just days away, Newberry’s Howard Vroon seems unfazed by the pressure of the stage on which his charges will soon compete.
“We love nerves,” said the sixth-year head coach. “We embrace it. It means we care about what we’re doing. We love nerves and we have the skills to manage them.”
Forget the players—it would be perfectly understandable for Vroon himself to have a few goosebumps when he approaches the first tee box at 8:25 a.m. Monday in Kissimmee, Florida. This year’s South/Southeast Regional appearance marked the fourth time Vroon has taken a team to the postseason, including three trips with Charleston Southern’s men’s and women’s programs over a decade ago, but the Wolves became the first of Vroon’s teams to advance to the NCAA finals.
With this year’s trip to Kissimmee, Newberry cements itself as the premier men’s golf program in the South Atlantic Conference. League members have advanced to the national finals on five occasions: Catawba in 1995, Elon in 1997, and Newberry in 2008, 2011, and 2017.
The Wolves also own the highest finish among any SAC member, advancing into match play and finishing in a tie for fifth in their most recent trip in 2011.
Vroon hopes his team’s thorough, calculated approach to preparing for tournament conditions will lead to another slot in the match play quarterfinals as the 20-team field is winnowed to eight following 54 holes.
“Our strategy is to find the best, hardest golf courses that we can play, set them up exactly how we think Reunion [Resort, home of the national finals] will play, and play them,” said Vroon as he rattled off a list of courses from Columbia to Daniel Island on which the Wolves have practiced this week.
But he concedes that even the most stringent preparation still leaves questions about Reunion Resort that cannot be answered until Sunday’s practice round. “We’ve done everything we can: ordered greens charts, talked to people that have played there, tried to figure out how it will play. We know what a resort course in Florida will look like. The rest will be testing the surfaces.
“We expect a lot of sand. Sand is in play on every shot. We’ve been spending a lot of time in the bunkers this week.”
The unique, five-day finals format was put in place in 2011. The 20 teams in attendance, representing each of four super regions across the country, will play 54 holes Monday through Wednesday to determine team standings and the individual national champion.
Thursday morning will see the top eight teams square off in match play quarterfinals. Semifinals take place Thursday afternoon, with the finals set for Friday. Coaches set their lineups prior to the start of match play. Corresponding players from the two teams constitute a pairing. The lowest score in each pairing earns a team point. In the case of a tie, the cumulative score of all five players for each team will serve as the tiebreaker.
“This format really puts an emphasis on your lineup. I like that,” said Vroon. “I’ll have to think about what I’m going to do and how the other coach could counter that. This is the one and only time we’ll play this format, which will make all these strategies new for us.”
While top-ranked West Florida is a clear favorite, Vroon is confident that Newberry can advance into match play. The Wolves enter the tournament ranked No. 7 by Golfstat. Newberry also has three individuals ranked in the top 100 nationally: Carlos Leandro (12), Spencer Skiff (37), and Harry Bolton (100).
“I think any one of our players could challenge for the top spot as an individual,” said Vroon. “And as a team, I think we stack up well. I think we’re very good. We’ve designed all of our training for this—to be playing our best golf in May.”