Steven Fisk (Georgia Southern Athletics)
It’s not often that Georgia Southern throws out a round from Steven Fisk. In fact, it happened for the first time all year at the Sun Belt Conference Championship when Fisk, a senior, opened with 75. It was a jarring feeling – Fisk wasn’t particularly fond of it. The only silver lining was that his teammates covered him.
“Definitely frustrated,” he said. “I had, I guess you could call it, a discussion with myself pretty soon after the round that thankfully most people weren’t able to hear.”
The next day, he had 61. It’s the second time in his college career that Fisk has been on 59 watch. He could see his way around the course better that day – things clicked and putts dropped.
The day after that, Georgia Southern careered it as a team. They had 22 back-nine birdies for a 21-under team total – and they threw out a 67. An at-large regional bid came the next week.
When Fisk won the Sun Belt individual title that week, it was the sixth win of his senior season. He has been the most visible thing about Georgia Southern golf. It takes more than one player to run the NCAA postseason gauntlet, though. Georgia Southern did it for the first time since 2010 last week, and will play the NCAA Championship at Blessings Golf Club in Fayetteville, Ark., this week. Getting there was as much about new blood as it was Fisk’s experience.
Still, when you have a guy like Fisk, you get more than low scores.
“We joked around a little bit in the fall that he was the sheriff and the other guys were his deputies,” Georgia Southern head coach Carter Collins said.
In other words, teammates have embraced that Fisk is going to go do what Fisk does. They just want to rally around him. Many things about the way Fisk approaches this game have bled into the underclassmen. He preaches course management.
“A lot of what he says has helped the younger kids get better, faster,” Collins said. “He’s competitive, he’s loyal. If he’s playing you, he’s trying to beat you by 100, 1,000. If you’re his teammate, he loves you and he’ll do anything for you.”
There are four freshmen on the Eagles roster, among them a mid-year transfer in Colin Bowles. Collins also picked up junior Jake Maples at the start of the season, who transferred from Central Alabama Community College. Georgia Southern had the top-ranked freshman class in the fall, according to Golfstat.
“There was a little bit of an unknown there, but they progressed more than we ever could have imagined,” he said.
In reflecting on their performances so far this year – Georgia Southern won four times in the regular season – Collins notes that the team played best on shorter, skinnier layouts. Players thrived with alternate clubs in their hands off tee boxes. So when Georgia Southern was assigned to the Stanford regional, Collins immediately liked the idea that they’d be playing on a shorter layout. His team adjusted quickly to a West Coast venue and different grass.
Each man had a game plan that suited his style, and Collins instructed his players to stay in their bubble. Remarkably, Georgia Southern went 2 under for a 278 team score in each of three rounds. There were only two scores higher than bogey on Georgia Southern cards all week.
For the week, the Eagles didn't have a player shoot over 72 – the only team in the regional to make that claim. Fisk and junior Jake Maples finished in the top 10 individually, and freshman Colin Bowles was T-15.
“As far as our consistent play, that comes from the game plan the guys created for themselves,” Collins said. “When they got into trouble, they were smart to get right back out.”
Unsurprisingly, this is Fisk’s style exactly. He manages courses and he out-thinks his opponents. It’s hard to argue the effectiveness of that kind of thinking when teammates watch Fisk winning week in, week out.
“Sometimes it helps to hear it from one of your peers, one of the other players,” Fisk said of what kind of impression he’s been able to make.
Fisk has been a worthy frontman for this team, appearing on watch lists for the Hogan and Haskins awards and generally turning heads toward what is going on at Georgia Southern. It’s fitting that his swan song will play out alongside his team.
At Blessings, Georgia Southern certainly will not find a short and attackable course. It's a sprawling piece of property out in nature and will play to 7,500 yards for the men. It’s mentally demanding, and that makes Fisk’s ears perk up.
“With the group of guys we have, when a course makes us think like what I’m expecting to see at the Blessings, our best comes out.”
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NCAA FIELD, TOUR VENUE:
Blessings Golf Club is a beautiful menace – made for championships and good on TV. Blessings, however, is not the only championship venue to celebrate during this postseason. When the NCAA Division II Women’s Championship played out at PGA National last week, it started the beginning of a long run of college golf.
Hosting an NCAA event was a first for PGA National’s Champion Course, but it started a four-championship run that will take place through 2022. Hosting duties continue with the 2020 NCAA Division III men’s and women’s national championship, 2021 NCAA Division II Championship and 2022 NCAA Division I men’s regional.
“It really is just the next evolution of our involvement with up-and-coming golfers,” said Director of Golf Jane Broderick.
PGA National is a familiar venue among juniors, mostly because of junior events hosted by the FCWT and AJGA. That familiarity helped with setup for the Division II national championship. Plus, as Broderick pointed out, a recent green renovation enlarged the putting surfaces back to their original size. That opened up more hole locations, and potentially some new ones.
The Champion Course annually hosts the Honda Classic on the PGA Tour and famously features a three-hole stretch (Nos. 15-17) called the Bear Trap.
With this year’s Division II women’s championship moving to medal match play, those closing holes came into play in a big way. Every match goes to the end in that format, and a player wins a point for her team if her 18-hole score is lower than her opponent’s.
"The tournament can be won and lost in the Bear Trap, there's no doubt," Broderick said.
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TOURNAMENTS TO WATCH:
U.S. Amateur Four-Ball, Bandon Dunes Golf Resort, Bandon, Ore., May 25-29
What a venue for a USGA championship – especially one that embraces the concept of a “buddy trip.” Stroke play will take place at the Old Macdonald and Pacific Dunes courses, but match play will be solely on Old Macdonald.
NCAA Championship, Blessings Golf Club, Fayetteville, Ark., May 17-22
The men’s championship is like the second act of a two-part play. While Blessings played to 6,400 yards for the women, it will jump to 7,500 yards for the men. If we learned anything during the women’s championship, it’s that course knowledge is key and you need to start the learning process as quickly as possible. Teams began arriving during women’s match play.
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TWEET OF THE WEEK
: Star of the week? Blessings Golf Club