Mid-season awards: Surprise player/team
The first half of the 2008-09 campaign has come and gone. With roughly eight weeks to catch their breathe before beginning the spring march to the NCAA Championship, players and programs must assess where they stand overall and consider how to repeat any success from the fall--or recover from a disappointing start to the season.
Just who, exactly, will be doing the repeating and who is looking at recovering? Consider the winners of Golf World's fourth-annual Mid-Season Award package, a compendium that serves as both a review of the season to date and a primer for what's to come when players tee it up again in late January. Each day we'll reveal more honorees in men's and women's college golf, culminating with the Mid-Season Player of the Year award winners and All-American teams.
__BIGGEST SURPRISE: PLAYER
Men: Dustin Garza, Wichita State
You hear coaches talk all the time about players who "if only they worked a little harder" could get so much more out of their games. Arguably there's no better example of this than with the 20-year-old from Mission, Texas, who finished runner-up in his first two fall starts and then won his next three tournaments while posting a 68.53 average.
"You always knew he had the talent," said Shockers coach Grier Jones of Garza, who won Missouri Valley Conference newcomer of the year honors two seasons ago. "It was just his work ethic. We'd talk about it, but he had to understand it for himself before he'd buy in."
Garza says that his failure to advance to match play at the U.S. Amateur in August was finally the tipping point. "It was a terrible showing," he admitted. "It really got me kind of aggravated. I told myself I didn't want to play bad like that anymore." After coming home early from Pinehurst No. 2, he met with Jones and his long-time swing instructor, Carlos Espinosa, mapping out a strategy for the coming year.
It was not the quantity of practice that had to change, but the quality. Believing his short game was his short coming, Garza focused his time on the putting greens trying to sharpen that aspect of his game. The work paid off quickly as he set his best 18-hole score on three different occasions, shooting a 66 at the VCU Shootout, then a 65 at the Wolf Pack Classic and finally a 61 at the Sycuan Collegiate Invitational.
"Dustin finally believes a little bit of what we've been trying to tell him," Jones says. "There is a maturing process. You're a little more serious about things and you prepare a little bit better on the golf. Like most kids that age, Dustin's started to grow up a little bit."
Honorable mention: Bronson Burgoon, Texas A&M
Coming off a disappointing junior year in which he managed only a 74.12 average, the 21-year-old from The Woodlands, Texas, returned to the form that earned him third-team All-American honors as a sophomore. A win at the Adams Cup was followed by a T-13 at the Ping Preview and a T-4 at the Baylor Invitational, giving him a 70.22 average for the fall.
Women: Jane Chin, UC Irvine
Having redshirted the previous season to improve on her game, the fifth-year senior from Huntington Beach, Calif., was pleased with a second-place finish at the Ron Moore Intercollegiate in her September return. Little did she know that would be her worst performance of the fall, as Chin proceeded to rip off three straight victories in her next three starts with an average margin of victory of more than eight strokes.
Previously an all-Big West performer with a 76.5 average as a junior, she has posted a 69.92 average this fall, lowest in all of Division I women's golf. In winning the Kent Youel Invitational in Hawaii with a 13-under 203 to close out the fall, she broke the school's 54-hole scoring mark.
Chin said that during the redshirt season she focused on trying to get her swing more on plane to help with her consistency. The first glimpse that the work was paying off came in August when she defeated UCLA All-American Tiffany Joh in the first round of the U.S. Women's Amateur. "I want to try to win every tournament that we play in," Chin told the Newport Beach (Calif.) Daily Pilot earlier this fall. "I think I'm capable of that now. And I want our team to win the Big West [for a third straight season] and go to nationals.
"Two years ago I wanted to win, but, deep down, I was probably thinking more about just doing as well as I could. But, now, I think I could really win most of the tournaments we play in."
Honorable mention: Cindy LaCrosse, Louisville
The senior from Tampa didn't finish worse than T-7 in four fall events, posting a 70.08 average.
__BIGGEST SURPRISE: TEAM
Yes, the Fighting Illini finished a respectable 45th in the final Golfstat ranking last spring, suggesting coach Mike Small had assembled some talent in Urbana/Champaign. But even with all five starters returning, were they really good enough to go head-to-head with the likes of UCLA, Oklahoma State, Stanford, Arizona State and Texas early in the 2008-09 season?
Apparently so, as the team knocked them all off in claiming the team title at September's Olympia Fields/Fighting Illini Invitational, their home event, then proceeded to win two more tournaments in the fall (Windon Classic, D.A. Weibring Invitational). Unranked in the preseason Golf World/Nike Golf coaches' poll, Illinois headed into the winter break No. 6 in the ranking.
Leading the change has been Scott Langley and Zach Barlow, both of whom have won individual titles (Barlow sharing medalist honors at Olympia Fields; Langley winning the Weibring by three strokes). "The biggest thing I take away is our team has continued its progression and improvement," Small said. "We opened some eyes at the Big Ten and National Championship in the spring. This fall we picked up where we left off and demonstrated we are moving in the right direction."
__Honorable mention: Colorado State __
Validated its Mountain West Conference championship a year ago with four wins in five starts this fall. The Rams have broken par as a team in 12 of their 15 rounds.
Is this the year somebody ends Duke's 13-season stranglehold on the ACC title? If so, the Cavaliers are as likely a candidate as anyone, having posted four top-five finishes in five fall starts, all while arguably UVa's best player, Lene Krog, has struggled with a 75.78 stroke average.
Second-year coach Kim Lewellen's team started the season ranked 14th in the Golf World/NGCA coaches' poll, only to jump to fifth by the end of the fall, having posted a 60-11 (.845) overall head-to-head record and a 21-11 (.656) mark versus top-25 schools.
__Honorable mention: North Carolina __
Unranked in the preseason, UNC is now a solid top-15 team with four top-five finishes. Coach Sally Austin's recent announcement that she'll step down at the end of the season gives the Lady Tar Heels plenty to play for.
__MOST IMPROVED PLAYER
Men: Alex Martin, Indiana
His numbers might be overshadowed by teammate and national player of the year candidate Jorge Campillo, but the 21-year-old junior from Middletown, Ohio, has been every bit as important in lifting the Hoosiers to the No. 8 ranking in the final fall Golf World/Nike Golf coaches' poll. Martin has dropped his stroke average almost three shots from a year ago (74.76 in 2007-08, fourth best on the team, to 71.87 in the fall). Martin had just one top-10 finish in 14 tournaments last season; in five starts this fall however he has shared the individual title at the Olympia Fields/Fighting Illini Invitational, added another top-five finish at the Isleworth/UCF Collegiate and a top-10 at the Cardinal Intercollegiate.
Honorable mention: Peter Malnati, Missouri
Lowered his stroke average from 74.24 last season to 71.11 this fall; posted five top-10s in six starts after having only three all of last season.
Women: Whitney Neuhauser, Virginia
This summer, Barboursville, Va., native described her college career to date as "mediocre," and with just one top-10 finish and a 78.12 average in two seasons, it might have been the right adjective. Yet, her surprise appearance in the quarterfinals of the U.S. Women's Amateur in August helped inspire a successful fall season, in which the 20-year-old junior finished second at the Cougar Fall Classic (setting the school 54-hole scoring record) and at the Derby Invitational. Neuhauser closed the fall with the best stroke average on the fifth-ranked Cavaliers (72.08)
Honorable mention: Candace Schepperle, Auburn
After a sophomore slump (75.08 average, two top-10s), the 20-year-old had a 71.83 average in the fall with three top-five finishes.