With a green-and-gold-clad crowd — ranging from the common fan, family or even USF men’s basketball coach Orlando Antigua — rallying around the 18th green, the USF men’s golf team made program history by advancing to the second leg of the NCAA D-I Championship.
It wasn’t a smooth run, with the team dropping as far as 22nd midway through Saturday’s round at The Concession Golf Course (par- 72) in Bradenton, but the team showed its resiliency by storming back to finish the first leg Sunday in seventh place at 13-over, with the top 15 teams advancing.
“I think they’re fighting not only for themselves, but for their teammates,” coach Steven Bradley said following Sunday’s round. “The cool thing for me to see is that even if Chase (Koepka) didn’t play well today, he’s going to be the one to lead the charge tomorrow.
“They’re playing for each other and in an individual sport, that doesn’t happen very often.”
To little surprise, much of the weekend’s focus was on freshman Claudio Correa, who is currently 4-under for the tournament and holds a tie for third place in the individual standings. Correa, who won the Gator Invitational earlie this spring, sat just three strokes behind leader Bryson Dechambeau of SMU following Sunday’s round.
After shooting a disappointing 75 in his second round, Correa bounced back with a 3-under third round to make his way back into contention. “I knew I had more rounds to come,” Correa said. “The leader wasn’t really too far so I just went for it.”
Correa held the lead for much of the first day of play with his team following suit.
Correa’s birdies on holes 13, 16 and 17 in the final round kept USF from falling too far off the lead, as Koepka had back-to-back double bogeys on the back nine. Sophomore Rigel Fernandes joined in, striking three birdies of his own on the back nine, which he said was the tougher section.
“I think the back nine is actually harder,” Fernandes said. “We just need to be playing better. I think it just gets down to crunch time on the back nine. I think we’ve gotten in some tough spots and we just had to respond and this team does that.”
Although the Bulls traveled an hour and a half south, it was far from a road tournament. Friends and family, including Fernandes’ parents, who live in India and have not seen their son play all year, made the trip.
As for the Bulls, they came into the tournament with the goal of making the top eight and moving on; now, they have their sights on a grander prize: a national championship.
“Our team mindset right now is to win the golf tournament,” Fernandes said. “I think (Koepka) said it yesterday; we enjoy being here, but we’re here to win.”
In order to accomplish that feat, USF must finish in the top eight in tomorrow’s 36-hole round before match play begins on Tuesday. From there, the field narrows to two teams who will face off in the championship round on Wednesday.