Sept. 13, 2006
The slogan “Return to Glory” has become a popular theme for sports teams of late, be it NFL, NBA or college programs. Although Clemson Head Golf Coach Larry Penley never used that phrase during the 2006 season, he certainly could have.
After a disappointing spring of 2005 that saw his team fail to reach the NCAA national tournament for the first time since 1981, the Tigers came back strong in 2006 and finished seventh at the NCAA Championships. The Tigers won the US Collegiate Championship in April against a national field and had three players rank in the final top 50 of the Golfweek/Sagarin rankings.
With the return of three starters, plus the addition of two of the top 10 junior players in the nation in the 2006-07 freshman class, most feel Clemson has returned to the days of challenging for the National Championship. The Tigers were ranked fourth in the nation in the preseason of at least one major poll, a ranking that may have been enhanced by the performance of his players over the past summer. Four different players combined to win six tournaments this summer, including major events Monroe Invitational, the Palmetto Invitational, Rice Planters and the Southern Amateur.
“We are a deep young team,” said Penley of his roster that has just one senior on the nine-man list. “We played four freshmen last year and they all will be competing for a place in the lineup. Then, Ben Martin, who we red-shirted last year, won two tournaments in the summer. Tanner Ervin returns to the starting lineup and with the addition of the freshmen, we will have at least eight players in the hunt for playing time. Weekly qualifying will be very competitive this year.”
While the Tigers do have depth, and a high preseason ranking, a top 10 finish certainly is far from automatic. Penley must replace two senior starters, plus another senior who provided great leadership the last five years. “We had great team chemistry last year and the seniors had a lot to do with that. Brian Duncan and Stephen Poole were our top two players last year.
“They, combined with Martin Catalioto, and gave us great leadership. They were all fifth-year guys and wanted to bring the program back to where it was when they were in their second year when we won the National Championship. Last year’s number-seven national finish was a great way to send them off and I know they took a tremendous amount of pride in what we did last year and how the program is set for the future. We just want to pick up where we left off last year.”
Clemson had a strong fall as a team with a second place finish at the Carpet Classic and a sixth place in the 18-team field at Isleworth. The squad is ranked eighth by the Golf Coaches Association and 12th by the Sagarin rankings entering the spring season. Three Tigers, Ben Martin and Sam Saunders, are all ranked in the top 50 in the nation. All three are freshmen.
Penley has just one senior on this year’s team in Nick Biershenk. He did not play last year but the outstanding match play performer will be important to the success of this year’s team. “Nick is a leader who the younger guys look up to. He works hard and will be a factor in our program. We are very young with seven freshmen and sophomores, so he will set an example to the rest of the team.”
Penley likes the depth on his roster and the positive effect it should have on the team. “The top five spots will be a premium each tournament. With the balance we have there shouldn’t be a lot of pressure on any one guy. We have five players who could play number-one for us during the year. I think this competition will be healthy. We will have the capability to go low as a team like we did last year at the second round of the ACC Tournament (when team shot school record 268).
“This is a tough schedule, but one we are used to,” said Penley ” If you are going to attract the top junior players in the country, you have to play a national schedule. We will see 10-14 top 25 teams in each tournament we play this year.”
Clemson returns two starters from last year, sophomore David May and junior Tanner Ervin. They will form the nucleus of Penley’s 24th Clemson team.
Ervin had a 73.59 stroke average figure last year, an improvement of nearly four shots per round over his freshman season, one of the top 10 single season improvements in Clemson history. “Tanner gave our lineup stability and it brought our team consistency. He was as much a key to our turnaround as anyone.”
Ervin entered the lineup for good at the Hootie’s @ Bulls Bay Invitational in his hometown of Mt Pleasant, SC. He finished 17th at that tournament to rank second among Clemson golfers. He followed that up with a 13th place finish at the Augusta State Invitational, and a 10th place at the United States Collegiate, helping the Tigers to the team title. Ervin continued his fine play this summer when he won the Rice Planters Amateur and had a 74.44 stroke average in the fall of 2006 in three events.
May was fifth on the team in stroke average last year with a 74.26 figure. He played in 11 of the 12 tournaments and had 12 rounds at par or better. Three of his rounds were in the 60s, tied for second on the team. He showed his ability to go low when he had a 65 at the Carpet Classic and a 65 at the ACC Tournament, the best two rounds by a Clemson golfer in 2005-06. His 207 at the Carpet Classic was also the low tournament of the year and tied the Clemson 54-hole record for a Clemson freshman. He finished second at that event, the best finish by a Clemson freshman in a tournament since 2000.
In the fall of 2006 he improved his stroke average to 73.67 for three events. He finished 23rd at the Purdue Aloha Classic with a 219 score, including a second round 68.
Luke Hopkins and Phillip Mollica are two more sophomores who were in the lineup last year. Mollica played in five events and had a 76.07 stroke average. He had a strong summer highlighted by his victory at the Monroe Invitational in June. Mollica played in three events in the fall of 2006 and showed improvement in each event, including a consistent showing at the Aloha Classic where he had three straight rounds of 75 or better.
Hopkins had a top 25 finish at the Augusta State Invitational when he played as an individual last year. He did not appear in a tournament in the fall of 2006, but is ready to make a contribution this spring.
Ben Martin red-shirted last season, but after a strong summer in various amateur events he has moved into the top of the Clemson lineup. The native of Greenwood, SC won two events, the Festival of Flowers in Greenwood, and the Palmetto Amateur in Aiken, SC. He then finished third in the first event of the fall at the Carpet Classic with a 208 total for 54 holes, including a second round 64 that was just one shot off the Clemson single round record. His third place finish in his first career round was the best showing in school history for a freshman in his first event.
Zack Siefert is another veteran who has been in the lineup who could see action this year. He is a red-shirt junior who has been in the lineup in the past.
While Clemson suffered two big losses in 2006 seniors Poole and Duncan, Penley has replaced them with talented freshmen Kyle Stanley.
“This is as talented a duo of freshmen we have coming into our program since Lucas Glover and John Engler entered together in 1997,” said Penley in comparing Stanley and Saunders to the two former Tiger All-Americans currently on the PGA Tour.
“They will raise our talent level as a team. They both like to win and have experience winning golf tournaments. They are excellent competitors who will be in our lineup this year. Both Kyle and Sam have big offensive games. That is the way golf is headed. They both have the ability to go low (scores).”
Stanley had an outstanding summer of 2006 winning both the Sahalee Players Amateur in Sammamish, WA and the Southern Amateur in Birmingham in July. He was named the National Amateur Player of the month for July. He later qualified for the US Amateur. A three-time AJGA All-American, Stanley was ranked as high as number-two in the national junior rankings during his career and was ranked in the top 20 of the national amateur rankings at the end of the summer.
He never lost stride in the fall of 2006, leading the Clemson team in stroke average with a 71.00 performance. He finished 18th or better in all four events, including a victory at the Purdue Aloha Classic, the first first-year freshman in history to win a fall event. He is already been named to the Ben Hogan Watch List for 2007 and ranks 12th in the Sagarin rankings entering the spring.
Saunders was ranked as the number-one junior in the nation at times over the last two years. The grandson of four time Master’s Champion Arnold Palmer put together a long list of accomplishments on the AJGA circuit before moving on to national amateur events this summer. He moved to number-one on the AJGA junior amateur list in June when he won the FCWT National Championship. He already has experience playing in a PGA Tour event as he competed in the 2006 Bay Hill Invitational. Stanley will play in that event in 2007 by virtue of his Southern Amateur championship.
Saunders played in two stroke play events and the Callaway Match Play in the fall. He had a top 10 at Isleworth in his first career event and is already ranked in the top 50 in the nation in the Sagarin rankings.
“Overall, it will be important for us to get mentally tough and mature as a team. The sky is the limit for this young team, because it is young and talented. The competition for playing time will be fierce and I look forward to seeing the players push each other to be the best they can be.”
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