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Bulls stumble in NCAA finals

USF had to settle with an early exit in this year’s NCAA Men’s Golf Championship after advancing to match play in last year’s championship. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE/GOUSFBULLS.COM

The weekend started with more hype than ever before with No. 15 USF standing firmly as a title contender in its second-consecutive NCAA Men’s Golf National Championship appearance in Eugene, Oregon.

That hype, that had been building since winning the season-opener at the Gator Invitational in February, quickly faded into disappointment — a feeling much like a year ago when the Bulls fell to eventual-champion LSU in the final round of the 2015 championships.

“We just didn’t play very well, to be honest with you,” coach Steve Bradley said. “We had a pretty solid game plan, we just didn’t execute.”

The Bulls got off to an average start, sitting in 19th place Friday after Round 1. But below average second and third rounds quickly began to snowball as the hole USF dug became too deep to emerge from.

USF finished 26th out of 30 teams, nine strokes off the cut line, which advanced the top 15 teams to the next stage. Hoping to ride the play of their No. 1 golfer, USF was instead forced to play catchup.

“Aksel (Olsen) kind of struggled in New Mexico and we got away with it because the course where we were didn’t really reward good play in the regional,” Bradley said. “And Rigel (Fernandes) struggled as well. To compete at the national championship level, you need your one and two players to play pretty solid. Chase (Koepka) played solid, but Aksel didn’t really take care of that.”

Both Olsen — who was playing in the No. 1 spot for USF after earning the AAC Player of the Year honor this season — and Fernandes continued to regress as the rounds progressed, shooting 77 and 80, respectively, at the par-70 Eugene Country Club.

 “When you have the best field in amateur golf, you just can’t afford to not be on it,” Bradley said. 

For the Bulls, there wasn’t one thing they could point to. In Bradley’s eyes, there were a handful of things that caused the team to lose confidence and slide to the back of the pack.

“The challenge of the course leads to the mental aspect of it,” Bradley said. “It wasn’t a golf course that was very forgiving … The course didn’t intimidate us, it’s just when you don’t hit the ball where you want to hit it or you don’t feel like you can control the golf ball, then you start seeing trouble.

“We just didn’t get the team effort that we had all year.”

After question marks surfaced following an average fall season, by Bradley’s standard, along with the departure of freshman Oskar Bergqvist, who left the school after playing in every fall tournament, USF rebounded with three wins in the spring, defending its AAC championship.

Still the season has ended in disappointment for the team, including senior Chase Koepka who ends his USF career with the defeat.

“I know they felt like they tried hard enough, it just wasn’t good enough this week,” Bradley said of the mood of the team following the early exit. “Sometimes you win without your best stuff and sometimes you lose with your best stuff. This week we just didn’t have our best stuff.”

Koepka, who shot 5-over-par for the tournament, is expected to be selected as an All-American for the third time in his career.

After two losses in what USF believed were winnable championship rounds, the Bulls begin the long road back, hoping to put those last three rounds in the back of their minds without forgetting what they accomplished during the season.

“We didn’t know how good we were going to be,” Bradley said. “For us to finish inside the top-20 in the country, to win four times, to have four individual wins for the second consecutive year, back-to-back conference championships, back-to-back national championship appearances, there’s a lot of positives.”