As the Western Carolina team flag flapped in the breeze just off the 18th hole of the NCAA men’s golf championships at the Concession Golf Club in Bradenton, Fla., head coach Bryant Odom captured the moment for posterity on his phone camera. Just behind Odom, the Catamounts’ standard-bearer finished the first half of his Thursday practice round.
“Pretty sweet,” said senior J.T. Poston, the first WCU golfer to compete in the NCAA championships. “It’s a tough course.”
Then he smiled. The tougher, the better.
Set among native stands of oak, magnolia and pine trees in rural Florida, the Concession Golf Club was named one of the top 100 U.S. golf courses in 2009 by Golf Magazine. The course, designed by Jack Nicklaus with Tony Jacklin, has the highest slope rating from the championship tees and measures 7,483 yards.
“It’s not easy tee to greens and it’s not easy around the greens,” said Poston, who’s been playing golf since his grandfather handed him a set of plastic clubs and a Wiffle ball when he was 3. “The greens are so fast, so firm, chipping is not going to be easy even if you’re chipping from an easy spot.”
Poston is one of 12 golfers from ASN-affiliated schools playing this weekend. East Tennessee State’s Gudmundur Kristjansson also will be competing as an individual, while regional champions UAB and Charlotte advanced as five-man teams. Four other individuals and 28 other teams will be vying for the championship, including No. 1 Florida State, the tournament favorite.
For Poston, WCU’s career scoring leader with a 71.60 average, the hardest part might be over.
After winning his second consecutive Southern Conference title on the first playoff hole, Poston needed a birdie on the 54th and final hole of regulation in the Chapel Hill Regional to force a playoff, which he won on the second hole. He finished two shots behind regional medalist Maverick McNealy (207) of Stanford, the top-ranked golfer in the nation to reach the NCAAs as the top individual not on a qualifying team.
Pressure? No problem.
“He knew what he had to do. Players like that, that’s when they shine,” Odom said. “When they’ve got it all on the line they come through. He relishes that. And I think it’s harder to get to the championship round as an individual than as a team. There isn’t anyone there to bail you out. It was all on his back. When he gets in these big events he proves himself and he shows he belongs every time.”
“All of it comes from experience,” Poston said. “I’ve been in this position before. The ones you remember are the ones you pull through on, and I feed off of those and trust that I can perform under pressure. Making a birdie on the first playoff hole at conference to win, I definitely drew off that. That helped me with the final hole (No. 18) at regionals. I knew from the SoCon that I could hit shots under pressure, which gave me confidence.”
In his four years at WCU, Poston has six tournament victories and 30 top-10 finishes. If the Catamounts had a tougher schedule, Odom said, Poston would be ranked higher than 34th.
“The only guy who beat him regional was the No. 1 player in the country (McNealy),” Odom said. “If we had a stronger schedule, he would get the ranking points. It’s like college football, you want to play the strongest schedule you can. If he played the same schedule as Texas, Auburn, Georgia, Florida State, he’d be top 10 in the country, top 15 in the country. He’s proven that.”
And Poston noted that through the first two rounds of the regional he actually had McNealy beat by a stroke.
“I know I can compete with any of these guys,” Poston said. “If I can hang with him, I can hang with any of these guys.”
And this week he’s got nothing to lose.
“I think if he plays his game he can win the tournament,” Odom said. “No doubt in my mind.”
Now that would be a banner moment.
Above: J.T. Poston, center, celebrates his regional victory with his dad, left, and coach Bryant Odom. (Courtesy West Carolina Athletics)