Gator bait

October 05, 2006

Less than a month ago I was talking with Florida’s Buddy Alexander about what might be in store for his Gator men’s squad heading into the 2006-07 season. Without even a pause to clear his throat, the Hall of Fame coach gave me one of the funnier predictions I’d heard in a while.

“Well,” he noted, “my expectations are diaper rash.”

Understandably, losing four seniors (including All-Americans Matt Every and Brett Stegmaier) from a team that finished second at the NCAA Championship last June and replying on five talented but untested freshmen to replace them had Alexander concerned he might be spending the next eight months serving as more of a nanny than a golf coach.

After his squad shot a final-round eight-under 272 to pull past defending NCAA champion Oklahoma State and win the Ping/Golfweek Preview by four shots yesterday, Alexander’s fears, however, are looking more and more unfounded. Already this month the Gators have finished third at the Inverness Intercollegiate and T-5 at the Carpet Capital Classic, pushing them into the top five in the latest Golf World college coaches' poll. So much for crawling with his young babes.

Making Alexander’s life easier is the fact he still has Billy Horschel in his line-up. A virtual unknown when he arrived in Gainesville a year ago, Horschel earned first-team All-American honors as a freshman. He then proceeded to erase any mention of a sophomore slump with a smooth 63 at Golden Horseshoe GC’s Gold course (the same course that hosts the 2007 NCAA Championship) in Williamsburg, Va., to claim medalist honors at the Preview.

“Billy just decided that he wanted to win today, and that he wanted us to win today,” Alexander said yesterday. “It’s fun to watch him take over like that.”

At last month’s U.S. Amateur Championship, Horschel set a USGA record when he posted a 60 at Chaska Town Course during stroke-play qualifying. Needless to say, the 19-year-old from Grant, Fla., has no problem going low. Moreover, his confidence is growing, which says a lot when you consider he was a pretty confident player already. At last June’s U.S. Open, Horschel had just missed the cut by three shots yet had the temerity to say: "I think what I learned is that when I’m on, though, my game is just as good as anybody out here.”

Horschel’s grit and resolve are his best assets. He appears to play best with a slight chip on his shoulder. Alexander's challenge, now, is to get him focused when it's not a "me against the world" scenario.

While no doubt counting on Horschel to stay on form, Alexander has gotten an unexpected boost out of the early play from junior Manuel Villegas, younger brother of former Gator All-American and current PGA Tour heart-throb Camilo Villegas. Never finishing better than T-27 in his 13 previous starts, Villegas has raised his game with a second-place showing at Inverness, a T-11 performance at the Carpet Capital and a T-6 this week at the Preview.

You could argue Alexander was playing possum all summer when he expressed concerns about how young his group would be this year. In freshmen Andres Echavarria, Tim McKenney and Tyson Alexander (coincidentally coach’s son) he has players that are capable of learning on the job, and rookies Robbie Wight and Jude Eustaquio could push the rest of the team back in Gainesville. Sophomore __Toby Ragland __played in 11 events and has the potential to be the X factor in terms of how far the team can really go.

No doubt there’s a long time until teams teams are back in Williamsburg for nationals, and while the Gators might not have diaper rash, there is still time for colic to set in. (Strong play in September is long forgotten in June.)

That said, anyone who figured Florida was "rebuilding" in 2006-07 has another thing coming ... even is that anyone was the team's own coach.