Feb. 14, 2010
By MOISEKAPENDA BOWER
Perhaps if the fall season had concluded with a different outcome, Rice golf coach Drew Scott would have cause for consternation as the Owls prepare to open the spring season hosting the 10th Rice Intercollegiate.
The accolades, both individually and collectively, have come in bunches since the Owls' second-place finish at the Carter Plantation Intercollegiate last November. Rice closed the fall season ranked 46th by Golfweek, which also declared the Owls as one of 10 notable stories from the fall. Freshman sensation Jade Scott posted four top-10 finishes, including an individual title at the David Toms Invitational to earn Midseason All-Freshman Team honors from GolfWorld. The Owls won the season-opening UTA/Waterchase Invitational, their first team title in more than a decade, and racked up three additional top-10 finishes.
In years past coming up just short at the Carter Plantation Intercollegiate would have sufficed. The Owls had gone so long without savoring the taste of victory that a close call could sate their longing to validate the countless hours logged on courses. The notion of achieving the ultimate success had become so foreign that almost could produce smiles of satisfaction and talk of a job well done. But triumph at the UTA/Waterchase changed perspectives so dramatically that Rice closed the fall lamenting what was lost instead of relishing in the recognition of being honored second-best. That disgust sat in the pit of the Owls' stomachs for two months, so Scott doesn't question their motivation.
"We ended the season on such a weird tone because we lost a tournament by one shot," Scott said of the runner-up finish to Louisiana-Lafayette. "I think that might have been the best thing that ever could have happened to us. I hate to say that, but losing that tournament the way we did was a blessing because now, all of a sudden, they've got a really bad taste in their mouth for the next two-and-a-half months until we play again this week. For the most part the guys have been really motivated. They don't have to wait for us to tell them what to do in practice. On their own they go that extra mile, and it's been great.
"They're very hungry. They still have something to prove."
While blowing a one-stroke lead in the final round of the last tournament of the fall season will inspire feelings of regret, the Owls were emboldened by their breakthrough season. Every burgeoning program needs its commitment to excellence confirmed by success, and the Owls are no different. That they opened the fall season in such a rousing fashion set a tone that would carry them to levels unexpected.
Scott had hoped that all the pieces would fall into place. Veterans Christopher Brown, Michael Buttacavoli and Michael Whitehead flashed potential last summer while Jade Scott enrolled with the credentials of an impact golfer. Almost immediately the group meshed, the combination of cagey veterans and aggressive rookies developing into a team in short order.
"Was I expecting that? A little bit," Drew Scott said. "Was I surprised? Absolutely. I was really happy with how balanced we were all semester. I was really happy with how well we performed under tough circumstances - the last day at LSU we go from ninth place to fifth place. That's great. That tournament was an incredible tournament as far as the level of competition, and we stepped it up. The same thing goes for the next week at Southeast Louisiana. We came out and wanted to win."
So much of what the Owls accomplished in the fall was derived first from their preparedness and then the confidence that sprouted from their season-opening win. The Owls had prided themselves on their commitment to rebuilding their program under Scott, but patience is tested when wins, individual and within the team dynamic, are scarce.
But then came the first team triumph since the Sacramento State Invitational in 1998. Jade Scott followed by shooting a final-round, six-under-65 to claim the David Toms Intercollegiate in late October, becoming the first Rice golfer since Parker LaBarge at the Battle on the Bend in 2005 to win an individual crown. That boost was sorely needed.
"Being here four years and seeing the other nine, 10 guys on the team go to practice every day, work hard, have high expectations going into every tournament and then walk away with our heads down, we felt like we didn't accomplish anything," Buttacavoli said. "That was a struggle. To finally get that win and to finally get rewarded for that hard work was definitely a huge positive for us, and it gave us a reason to continue to work hard. Sometimes you really struggle to find a reason to work hard, but because we've had that win and had some success it's helped support coaches pushing us and us wanting to push ourselves."
Jade Scott watched the transformation unfold in his first tournament. He observed a team accustomed to falling short develop confidence with just one victory, and then witnessed his team build on that momentum.
"We rode off of that," Jade Scott said of the UTA/Waterchase. "We felt like why can't we do that here? Why can't we do that there? If we win that one we can win the next one. Anytime we play good we can win."
Expectations swelled to such a level that the Owls were miffed by their inability to hold the lead at the Carter Plantation Intercollegiate. Suddenly second place was no longer satisfactory, especially for those few who didn't shoot well down the stretch. The big picture of a fourth top-10 finish in five tournaments was reduced to agonizing over poor shots here and there, lapses that cost Rice its second victory of the fall.
So when the Owls tee off at Westwood Golf Club on Monday, hope will give way to hunger. The page representing the fall season has been turned, and grandiose visions of playing 10 tournaments this spring - two more than the Owls are scheduled to participate - has become the new goal. If the Owls can come from out of nowhere and finish the fall ranked inside the top 50, why can't they take that next step and leap inside the top 25? If they can snap an 11-year skein of winless seasons, why can't the Owls finish atop the leader board at the Conference USA Championship at Red Tail Golf Club in Sorrento, Fla., and why can't they follow one exceptional performance with another at the NCAA Central Regional at Traditions Club in Bryan? Are the NCAA Championships really out of reach? Is participating alongside the nation's best at The Honors Course in Ooltewah, Tenn., that outlandish of an aspiration?
Perhaps these are the questions that the Owls pondered deep within their subconscious while they waited for a shot at redemption and for the chance to continue what they started five months ago in Fort Worth.
"If we would have come out in the fall and not done so well, not won a tournament, we would have looked at it like, `OK, here comes the spring,'" Jade Scott said. "Now we're going into the spring looking at it as we can win any tournament we play in. The confidence level is so much higher when you do well in golf. You feel like you can do it again and again and again. When you taste success, you just want more."
Said Buttacavoli: "It's easy to turn around that other direction. We need to continue to work hard, we need to continue to go out there and play to win. But at the same time it's not going to come easy. Just because the extra confidence is there doesn't mean all of us can shoot low whenever we want. You have to go out there and you have to play hard."