By Julie Williams, Golfweek
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Sheets of rain were coming down sideways as the John Hayt Intercollegiate field slogged its way into the clubhouse at Sawgrass Country Club on Tuesday. Most players had close to five holes in when play was suspended at about 10:15 a.m. They roamed around the clubhouse for nearly an hour until the final round was canceled. There was too much water down at Sawgrass, and many teams had late-afternoon flights to catch.
North Florida, ranked No. 30 by Golfweek, had a 12-shot lead on Duke when play began Tuesday. The Blue Devils, No. 9, had done little to make up any of that ground in the rain, so North Florida was declared the winner with its 36-hole 17-under 559. It’s the third time the Ospreys have won this event.
Two things were missing from North Florida’s victory – most noticeably, the final-round score. But the tournament also felt different without namesake John Hayt, who was unable to get to the course as he battles lung cancer. Hayt, a local businessman who heartily supports North Florida golf, is a regular at this event. Head coach Scott Schroeder struggled to find words as he accepted the team trophy in Hayt’s absence. Hayt, Schroeder says, knows each of his players well and follows their games closely. Much of the field pinned white ribbons to their hats in support of Hayt.
“Two or three years ago, he would go to eight or nine events a year, so the kids were used to seeing him,” Schroeder said later. “We would be nowhere close to Jacksonville and no parents would come, but he would be there.”
Schroeder spoke with Hayt after each round, and already was making plans to visit Hayt with the team and show off the trophy they had earned with him in mind.
This John Hayt title wasn’t just an emotional one; it was a hard-fought one. Wet and chilly conditions plagued the second round, too. North Florida continued to drive its score deeper under par as the rest of the field struggled to keep their collective heads above water. North Florida had opened with a 12-under 276 (which tied Augusta State’s John Hayt record from 2001), but doubled a six-shot lead on Duke in the rain. UCF finished third, a distant 14 shots back.
“I was really proud of the guys for staying patient,” Duke head coach Jamie Green said. “That’s what you have to do if you’re going to be competitive.”
Duke has been playing in similarly nasty weather back home in Durham, N.C., for the past month and a half. The Blue Devils next week will play the Southern Highlands Collegiate Masters on March 8-10 in Las Vegas. Green expects windy conditions, and he hopes that aspect of the John Hayt has prepared his team for the next start.
For Schroeder’s squad, the key word at Sawgrass was perseverance. That effort was led by seniors Kevin Phelan and Sean Dale, who finished in the top two spots, respectively, on the leaderboard. Sophomore M.J. Maguire also contributed a top 20.
“We’re fortunate that we play out here a decent amount, and the weather is always different,” Schroeder said. “We always tell the guys, ‘You don’t know what’s coming; just be prepared for anything.’ ... The guys are pretty tough. They’ve learned to deal with the weather, and it’s made us a better team.”
The John Hayt is Phelan’s first collegiate victory. The Irishman began the week with a tournament-record 64 that included six birdies and an eagle. His second-round 67 matched teammate Dale’s score. Earlier this month, Dale won the Jones Cup, a prestigious amateur event at Ocean Forest Golf Club in Sea Island, Ga.
This week marks the first team title for North Florida this season. It’s only the second start for Dale, who sat out of the fall season as he played PGA Tour Q-School. He didn’t advance past the second stage. Phelan played three times in the fall and, together with Dale, helped the Ospreys to a runner-up finish at the Gator Invitational earlier this month.
“I’ve knocked on the door for a while with the victories, but I just tried to improve my practice recently – get more out of it,” Phelan said. “It’s just efficiency.”
You might say Phelan had an advantage at Sawgrass as the conditions worsened. Phelan grew up in Waterford, Ireland, and is well-versed in playing through rain and wind. He moved to St. Augustine, Fla., with his family when he was 13.
“I think the key is just to stay patient, take every shot as it comes,” Phelan said of playing through rain. “If you start off bad, then try to force it, it generally doesn’t turn out too well.”
Nothing about Phelan’s victory – or his team’s – felt forced at Sawgrass.
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