Andy Zhang (UF photo)
KISSIMMEE, FL (May 16, 2018) - J.C. Deacon is over it now.
The final day of NCAA regionals last year was a nightmare for Florida’s head coach. His top-seeded Gators plummeted from third to eighth at the NCAA West Lafayette Regional to go from one of the NCAA Championship favorites to not making it there at all (top five teams advance).
“It was just all around bad, disappointing,” said Andy Zhang, a Florida sophomore. “(J.C.) said it was the worst day he’s ever had on the golf course. Pretty similar for all of us.”
But what a difference a year makes.
On the final day of regionals in 2018, Florida finished off a dominant performance at the NCAA Kissimmee Regional. The second-seeded Gators began the round with a five-shot lead and blitzed Reunion Resort’s Watson Course with a 17-under 271 to rocket to a 12-shot victory.
Not only did the Gators advance to the NCAA Championship, but they also lapped the field … with a final-round score that was four shots better than any other team. Their 42-under total broke the school record (by five) for most strokes under par in a tournament. Oh, and Zhang (13 under) captured the individual title, for good measure.
Deacon still had the thought of last year’s regionals showing in his mind. But Wednesday’s finish gleefully pummeled that into submission.
“I didn’t get over it until probably right now, to be honest,” said Deacon, in his fourth season at Florida. “It’s like that person that beat you: Every birdie we made (today), I was sticking it to regionals. Every birdie I looked at on my phone was just kind of kicking regionals down even harder. It felt pretty good.”
It’s certainly a testament to the progress that has been made.
The Gators didn’t lack talent last season – you don’t earn a No. 1 seed at regionals without a lot of firepower – but the disaster in West Lafayette made something abundantly clear to Deacon: His group lacked toughness.
There were tears shed on that miserable day and the mood was somber coming back. It was something they weren’t going to forget.
Gordon Neale took that day to post an 86, a round he “could never wake up and not think about” every day thereafter. While that had a haunting effect, it was a motivating one, too.
“I still feel bad for letting (J.C.) down last year. Shot the worst round of my life that day,” said Neale, a junior. “This whole year, I’ve just been really trying to make my game as good as I can so I never let him down like that again.”
Neale didn’t have his best week at regionals, posting a T-26 at 2 under. But it was a far cry from the 2017 meltdown. And if you want consistency, well Neale’s last seven starts have been 4-T8-T7-T12-T12-T21-T26.
That’s not letting anyone down.
It’s the sort of gritty work that must give Deacon pride. Embracing adversity became a focus of his this season, as he made team workouts more intense and was more stringent on details (punctuality, uniforms) being respected.
The coach had afforded his players a number of days off in recent years but didn’t give any this season. Coming home from a tournament? There would still be an early workout (around 6 a.m.) the next morning.
Deacon expected pushback but figured it would play well into the plan.
“I was waiting for complaints. They were there early and then they kind of tapered off and we haven’t had any complaining on this team in the last couple months,” Deacon said. “That’s been the difference.”
An influx of dedicated, talented freshmen has helped as well, but Neale sensed the change in toughness as far back as the team’s second event of 2017-18. A season after front-running their way in five wins, the Gators started the final round of the Trinity Forest Invitational tied for the lead … and then thumped the field on the final day in a 10-shot triumph.
Deacon felt the SEC Championship was a turning point, as the Gators sat in a tie for 12th through 18 holes. Needing to finish in the top eight in 54 holes to make the match-play portion, Florida didn’t pout. Instead, the Gators played their final 36 holes in 10 under to rocket to a tie for second.
With all this talk, that’s not to say this season has been just a non-stop grind.
Freshman Chris Nido closed in 9-under 63 on Wednesday to rocket to solo second at 12 under. Who wouldn’t have fun doing that? John Axelsen, another freshman, also made hay this week with a T-6 showing at 9 under. Senior Alejandro Tosti matched Neale’s T-26.
The Gators stayed in a large house this week on the eighth hole at the Watson Course, a setup that allowed for easier bonding and more home-cooked meals. As Neale noted with a chuckle, a two-time PGA Tour winner (volunteer assistant Dudley Hart) was doing their dishes all week.
If Deacon wanted an omen, though, that his emphasis on embracing tough times was still important, he got it when some smoky cooking in the kitchen set off a fire alarm at 5:45 a.m. the day of the opening round.
Any complaints for the unexpected jolt from sleep?
“It was hilarious,” Zhang said.
For the sophomore, there’s much to smile about this week. Zhang has now won the SEC Championship and the NCAA Kissimmee Regional back-to-back. His performance this week came on a course he’s played hundreds of times.
There’s also the fact that he had planned to leave after his freshman season. That would’ve made the devastation at regionals his last college tournament. Instead, he returned and got this sweet feeling.
“Last year this time, I just finished what I thought was the last tournament of college golf for myself,” said Zhang, who will indeed turn pro after this season. “Deciding to come back was probably one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. This year’s just been amazing, I’ve grown a lot, I’ve learned a lot, I’m very happy I came back for one more year.”
As for Deacon, it hasn’t been a smooth road since this day a year ago. But the tougher approach has his team playing its best golf at the time when it matters most.
“It hasn’t been easy, we haven’t always got along, but we’ve seen improvement and we’ve seen change,” Deacon said. “It’s been an amazing year and to see it all come together this year is really rewarding.”
Host UCF, the No. 10 seed, cruised on its way to the NCAA Championship. A year after winning their regional, the Knights posted a 30-under 834 to finish second. They were never in any danger this week of missing the cut, as they were first or second after every round.
Kent State struggles in the final round, but a closing 4-under 284 proved to be just enough. The Golden Flashes dropped from third to fifth, but their 20-under total earned them the last spot out of this regional by two shots.
Fourth-seeded South Florida was the only top-five seed from this regional not to advance. The Bulls dropped from fourth to eighth and finished at 12 under.
Arizona, the No. 6 seed, put up an impressive final-day charge. A 13-under 275 was the day’s second-best round and boosted the Wildcats from eighth to sixth. But they fell two shot shorts of a potential playoff to advance. Fortunately, George Cunningham did advance to the NCAA Championship as an individual with a T-6 finish at 9 under.
Central Connecticut State may’ve played its last tournament. The program will be eliminated at season’s end, and the 2017-18 campaign for the Blue Devils’ came to a close with a 14th-place showing this week.
The folowing teams and individual advanced to the NCAA Championship:
- Florida, UCF, Vanderbilt, North Carolina, Kent State
- George Cunningham, Arizona