When Rigel Fernandes walked off the green after the NCAA men’s golf quarterfinals just four months ago, a sickness churned in his stomach.
It wasn’t the flu or the common cold. It was the feeling of watching his — and USF’s — dreams of a national championship slip through his grasp.
“That was the most pain I’ve ever felt on a golf course,” the sophomore said. “As happy as I was for the program and how proud I was to be a part of it, it hurt.
“Our goal was to win it all and we didn’t do that.”
USF went on a historic run in the spring, blowing through the AAC tournament with ease and finishing top eight in the NCAA Tournament. But, in the end, the Bulls left empty-handed.
This season, Fernandes wants it all.
“It hurt at the time, but here we are,” he said. “We have another year and another opportunity to compete for that goal.”
Pressure has never been more of a factor for the Bulls as they attempt another charge at a title. USF proved it was an elite program in college golf. Along with that distinction comes a bright target placed firmly on its back.
“Around the country, we have a lot more recognition and people know how good we are,” Fernandes said. “There’s a little bit of pressure that comes with that, but everyone here embraces it.”
In USF’s first tournament of the season last week at the Carpet Capital Collegiate Classic Fernandes was unable to play after traveling for the U.S. Amateur where he narrowly missed match play. The Bulls finished 11th out of 15 teams, starting two freshmen in Fernandes’ absence — Oskar Bergqvist and Francesco Ruffino.
In their first collegiate appearances, Bergqvist and Ruffino finished 51st and 73rd, respectively.
It wasn’t the finish the team expected, but it was something to learn from.
“Course management was an issue for some of the guys,” said senior Chase Koepka who finished tied with teammate Aksel Olsen for 19th place. “Some were playing their first collegiate event, so, it was tough.
“The greens were fast and I don’t think some of the guys were expecting that.”
This week, Fernandes will join Koepka back in the lineup along with last year’s AAC freshman of the year Claudio Correa as the team heads to Valentine, Nebraska for another challenge on their quest for back-to-back NCAA appearances.
The Jackrabbit Invitational at The Prairie Club will feature an unknown course, but one that Fernandes said closely resembles Erin Hills Golf Course in Wisconsin, where the team played on last season.
The biggest obstacle the Bulls will have to overcome, much like at Erin Hills, are the elements.
“The wind is something that’s going to play a huge factor,” Fernandes said. “It’s an open-land golf course — there’s not a tree on the course. Wind will be a huge factor. According to the forecast, it’s going to blow strongly and that’s one thing we’re focusing on right now.”
It’s a long road to get back to the pinnacle of college golf, a place USF felt rather comfortable — and the Prairie is one step of many.
But the team’s mindset is clear: USF is going back.
“We know how good we can be and we know we are capable of winning a national championship this year,” Fernandes said. “That’s been the goal since we started practice and we look forward to the challenge.”