Chattanooga’s golf team heads to Ohio State’s famed Scarlet Course for the NCAA Columbus Regional that begins on Thursday, but the Mocs will have another course in the back of their minds.
That’s because the program, under eighth-year coach Mark Guhne, has had to adjust its expectations upward. Having now appeared in the NCAAs the last seven seasons, Guhne and his players now expect to advance past the regionals and to the championship round. They’ve done it twice since 2009.
That goal takes on even greater significance this year, given that the finals will be played in Atlanta and the Capital City Club Crabapple Course for the NCAA Championship May 28-June 2.
But first the Mocs will have to be one of the top five teams in Columbus. The Scarlet Course presents a difficult challenge. Designed in 1938 by legendary architect Alister MacKenzie and given even more bite by some former Ohio State golfer named Nicklaus, Scarlet can best be described as inhospitable. The last time it played host to an NCAA regional, Wake Forest won with a team score of 27 over par.
UTC will have recent precedent on its side this week. A year ago the Mocs won the Bowling Green Regional, advancing to the finals at famed Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles.
The memory of that accomplishment is still fresh in the mind of Guhne’s quintet of 2012 U.S. Amateur champion Steven Fox, a senior, juniors Chris Robb, Davis Bunn and Benni Weilguni, and sophomore Liam Johnston, who between them have 702 holes of NCAA experience.
“The regional, that’s not our goal anymore,” Guhn said. “You don’t want to ever take it for granted. But with the guys that are here, that’s become an expectation. Now we need to continue to develop our program so it becomes an expectation to make to the finals every year. That’s the step we’re trying to take now.”
The field is solid and includes a pair of Southeastern Conference teams, Auburn (ranked 18th by Golfstat and 19 by Golfweek) and South Carolina (20/23) the Mocs have had success against this season, along with new SEC member Missouri (29/32). But the real competition will come from New Mexico (6/5) and Stanford (8/10).
“New Mexico’s having a great year,” Guhne said. “Stanford’s always solid. But one thing we’ve learned about this tournament-you’ve just got to go play. You can be (ranked) No. 6 or No. 30, and there’s really not much difference. It gets down to who plays three solid rounds of golf. Last year, we weren’t seeded in the top five and we won it.
The Mocs (44/48) are seeded No. 8. Does that mean they have the field right where they want it?
There’s no question the Mocs have advantages most teams from non-power conference leagues don’t have. One is Fox, whose Amateur title has afforded him the opportunity to compete at the highest level of the game. He’s already played historic, difficult courses (Torrey Pines, Bay Hill, Augusta National) while competing in three PGA Tour events since January. The Scarlet Course won’t intimidate him.
Bunn, having his best season, leads UTC in spring scoring average (73.13) and has three top-10 finishes and 10 rounds of par or better to his credit.
The regional won’t be intimidating to the Scotsmen Robb and Johnston; they’ve played all over Europe and were solid contributors in the NCAAs a year ago.
The Mocs’ key man could well be Weilguni, who was left home from the NCAAs last year in favor of Bunn. Weilguni has the least NCAA experience on the team, but Guhne calls him an “X-factor.”
“When Benni has a good tournament, we have a good tournament,” Guhe said. “I don’t want to put pressure on him, but it seems to happened that way. When your five man plays well, that’ a huge lift.
“We need him to have a good tournament, have some good rounds. That motivates the rest of them and takes a little bit of pressure off. And he’s been playing well as of late.”