__ALPHARETTA, GA.--__At a tournament where organizers bend over backward for participants (limos to and from the airport, Escalades to and from the golf course, caddies to and from the first hole to the 18th) should it really be much of a surprise that the U.S. Collegiate Championship offered up not just one but several feel-good stories for the week?
For starters, there's the Southern California men and their impressive three-shot victory over Oklahoma State. The Trojans were propelled by a final-round five-under 283 at GC of Georgia's Lakeside Course, that gave them an even-par 864 for the three days. It was USC's second victory of the spring, but considering how stout the field was here in suburban Atlanta--the top eight teams in the latest Golf World/Nike Golf coaches' poll were on hand, and 10 of the top-25--this one carries a little extra juice.
"Hopefully this lets these guys know they belong at the highest level," said USC coach Chris Zambri of his sixth-ranked squad. "Not only to win, but to win with a great round means a lot."
Leading the way was defending NCAA champion Jamie Lovemark, who closed with a smooth 66. Still, the most inspiring performance might have come from Gavin Reid, a freshman from Northern Ireland who won a qualifier back home to get his spot in the lineup for only his fourth college start (and keep Tom Glissmeyer back in L.A.). Reid struggled the first two days, not counting during either round (77-83) for the Trojans and leaving himself T-70 individually entering Wednesday's play before he "fought on" to shoot a two-under 70 and become feel-good story No. 2.
As USC took home the team hardware, literally--I saw the players (Rory Hie,Tim Sluiter and Matt Giles) walking through Atlanta's Hartsfield Airport this evening, Lovemark carrying a cardboard box that contained the tournament trophy--runner-up Oklahoma State's final-day performance (seven-under 281) gave the folks in Stillwater reasons to believe their 2007-08 squad might not be too young to get the job done.
Most importantly, the team's old man--junior Trent Leon--showed a great deal of maturity as he slept on the 36-hole lead, then weathered a birdie/double-bogey/bogey start to eventually shoot a final-round 70 and claim his first college individual title (feel-good story No. 3) with an eight-under 208 performance.
Leon had been striking the ball well since the fall, but his putter hasn't cooperated. He took the red-eye flight from San Diego to Orlando after the Barona Collegiate tournament two weeks ago to work with instructor Kevin Smeltz and then visited a friend in the Atlanta area to work out a few more kinks on the putting green.
With freshman Rickie Fowler giving more reason to believe he is a contender for player of the year (final-round 67 for a seven-under 209 total), Leon provided the additional low score the Cowboys had been missing much of the season. Leon says that it's patience that he's trying to practice now that he's the elder-statesment of the squad.
"Rickie told one of the guys the other day that I was the dad on the team," Leon said last week. "I've never been called a dad. I feel like I'm pretty damn immature.
"But it's been good. I had guys to look up to my first few years. I learned a lot, and now I think I can pass some things one. I like this role a little better."
"He's knocked on the door a few times," said OSU coach Mike McGraw. "This is a huge win for him. I'm hoping maybe this is the step he needs to get to where he needs to be."
So what did we learn this week?
1.) It can snow in Georgia in March (yep, those were flurries the first day).
2.) While tournament organizers would have liked the course to be a little greener--cold temps kept the bermuda from coming out of dormancy--and the greens a little firmer, they've got a course that is plenty challenging regardless of the time of year the tournament is played. (And GC of Georgia members more than likely will have the conditions they want next week when 2007 U.S. Amateur champ (turned pro) Colt Knost and 2007 British Amateur champ Drew Weaver contest the 11th Georgia Cup.)
3.) There is no separation among the top teams in men's college golf. Top-ranked Alabama finished a respectable third, eight shots back of USC, while No. 2 Georgia and No. 3 Charlotte came in ninth and 10th, respectively. Come the NCAA Championship at Purdue's Kampen Course in May, it's really going to be anybody's title to claim.