Aug. 29, 2007
The 2007-08 Clemson golf season could be a special season. It will be special for Head Coach Larry Penley because it will be his 25th season as Clemson head coach. He will join a short list of Tiger coaches in any sport (Frank Howard, Bill Wilhelm, current tennis coach Chuck Kriese) who have served with the program as a head coach for a quarter of a century.
His list of accomplishments in that time is significant. Seven times he has been named ACC Coach of the Year, eight times he has led the Tigers to an ACC Championship and seven times he has won the NCAA East Regional, more than any other Division I coach. He has taken the Tigers to the NCAA Tournament every year he has been the head coach (since 1983-84 academic year). And, he led the Tigers to that magical 2003 season when Clemson won the ACC, East Regional and NCAA Championships, the only program in NCAA Golf history to win all three titles in the same year. He was named National Coach of the Year that season.
His 2008 team could be very special as well. Led by first-team All-American and United States Walker Cup selection Kyle Stanley, this is a team with many options. There are eight returning lettermen, including six who have played as many as 23 competitive rounds for the Clemson program. Four players made the field for the United States Amateur, the most active players to play in that national tournament in school history.
“We will be a very deep team this year, one of the deepest I have had in my 25 years at Clemson,” said Penley. “A top-five position will be a premium this year. Competition is a good thing and having seven or eight guys capable of playing every tournament will make us a better team.”
While the talent is there, so is the motivation. The Tigers made the NCAA East Regional Tournament and had a number-12 final national ranking in the Sagarin computer poll, but the team failed to advance past the NCAA regional, losing in a playoff for the last spot with Coastal Carolina. The Chanticleers then finished in the top five at the national event, telling Tiger golfers and coaches, “that should have been us with a top five finish.”
“The way last year ended should serve as a motivation for this year,” said Penley. “We were a top 12 team all year and we were capable of finishing in the top five at the national, but we lost in the playoff at the regional. That showed them that one stroke in one round can make a big difference.”
Penley was in the same position two years ago. After the 2005 team failed to reach the NCAA national tournament by just two shots, the 2006 team used the experience as motivation and finished seventh in the nation.
One of the keys to that 2006 team’s success was leadership and team play. That will be a key again this year. “We need to develop as a team, we will only be as great as the sum of our five players (in a given tournament). I saw that at the NCAA national tournament in Stanford. Other teams at the NCAAs had better players than Stanford last year, but Stanford had the best team. We need to work towards the common goal.
“We have players with the work habits to be a great team in 2008. We have some talented players who should step up to the next level after last season’s experience. We have a chance to be an outstanding team.”
One of the reasons for optimism around the program was the performance of the returning team members in the summer of 2007. Kyle Stanley was ranked among the top 10 amateurs all summer, including three weeks at number-one. He had four top 10 finishes at major amateur events and was named to the Walker Cup team in August, just the third active Clemson player named to the Walker Cup team.
Phillip Mollica won the prestigious North-South Amateur at Pinehurst #2 and Luke Hopkins won the South Carolina Amateur and the Palmetto Amateur. Ben Martin, Sam Saunders, and Tanner Ervin all had top 11 finishes at national events this summer.
“At one point or another we had eight players who played well this summer,” said Penley. “Phillip Mollica had a top three at the Dogwood and then won the North-South Amateur, one of the top amateur events in the country.
“Luke Hopkins had a goal to win a tournament this summer, it had been a long time since he had won, and he had a dominating performance at the South Carolina Amateur. He then trumped that by winning the Palmetto Amateur the next week.”
While this Clemson team does have depth, it does have a dominant number-one player. Stanley’s freshman season has to rank among the best in Clemson history in any sport. The native of Gig Harbor, WA was the ACC Player of the Year as a freshman, the first freshman in ACC history to win that honor. When you look at the lineage of PGA Tour players who played in the ACC that is quite a statement.
Stanley posted a 70.87 stroke average last year, second best in Clemson history, trailing only the 70.33 by D.J. Trahan in 2002 when he was named national player of the year. Stanley was a model of consistency, finishing in the top 20 in all nine of his tournaments, including a top three finish at the ACC Tournament, the NCAA East Regional and the NCAA National. He joins D.J. Trahan (2001) as the only active Clemson players chosen for the United States Walker Cup team.
“Kyle Stanley was the best freshman I have ever coached, and when you look at his statistics, he had one of the best season in our history regardless of class. There are some areas where he can improve. It will take dedication on his part, but that is not a problem. He is among the hardest working and most coachable players I have had. He can get a little more consistent in his short game.
“Overall, what surprised me the most was his overall consistency. Most freshmen take a round or two off, but he never did. He had one round all year over 75. When you go out and finish in the top three at the conference, the regional and the national tournament, that is quite a performance. His 67 on the last day of the regional was as good as we have seen in a long time.”
If it had not been for Stanley’s off the charts statistics in 2007, Ben Martin freshman year would have received many headlines. All Martin did was make first-team All-ACC, first-team All-District, first-team Academic All-ACC, and post a 73.48 stroke average. His stroke average is the sixth best in school history for a freshman. The native of Greenwood, SC joined Stanley as just the third and fourth freshmen in school history to make first-team All-ACC.
“Ben had a strong freshman year. He had to battle some physical problems with his heart and it forced him to miss the ACC Tournament. We missed him at that event. He had the low round of the year with a 64 at the Carpet Classic in his very first event. He is going to be a factor in our lineup for years to come.” Martin was the recipient of the Clemson Athletic Department’s Brandon Streeter Award for his courageous performance despite a physical handicap last year.
Tanner Ervin is one of two seniors on the Clemson roster for 2007-08. The native of Mount Pleasant, SC had a 74.21 stroke average as a junior in his eight tournaments. His seventh-place finish at the ACC Tournament was his top performance of the year. He is a veteran of 22 tournaments and 67 rounds in his career, more than any other active Tiger. He qualified for the United States Amateur in the summer.
David May is a two-year returning starter from Auburn, NY. He had a 74.15 stroke average last year, third best on the team. He played nine of the 10 tournaments last year and led the team in rounds at par with six. He finished the season strong with a 12th place at the ACC Tournament and a top 25 at the NCAA East Regional where he was Clemson’s second best player.
Sam Saunders is another returning starter from last year. The sophomore from Windermere, FL had a 74.42 stroke average a year ago when he played in eight of the 10 tournaments. He started his career with three straight top 15 finishes, including an eighth-place at the Puerto Rico Classic in February when he had a season best 69 in the first round. Saunders is coming off a solid summer when he had four top 25 finishes at major amateur tournaments and qualified for the United States Amateur.
Phillip Mollica is a sixth returning player who played in at least six events last year. The junior from nearby Anderson, SC had a 75.00 stroke average, including a season best 18th place finish at the Las Vegas Invitational. He is also coming off an outstanding summer when he won six matches at the North-South Amateur to become the first Clemson golfer to win that prestigious event. He also had top 25 finishes at the Players Amateur, the Southern Amateur and the South Carolina Amateur in addition to qualifying for the United States Amateur.
Luke Hopkins red-shirted last season, but he obviously will be in the mix for playing time this year. He was the only Tiger to win two events this summer, gaining victory at the South Carolina Amateur and the Palmetto Amateur in consecutive weeks.
“Luke got stronger, worked on his academics and he is ready to go as a sophomore this year,” said Penley. ” Looking back, we probably should have played Luke last year. He has turned into a great short putter. He has solid mechanics when it comes to putting.
Zack Siefert joins Ervin as the only seniors on this year’s team. He has played just one tournament for the Tigers, but based on a solid summer of 2007, he also will be in consideration for a top five position. His number-five finish at the South Carolina Amateur featured four straight rounds at par or better, one of just three players in the field to achieve that level of consistency.
Penley will also have three first-year freshmen on his roster this year.
Mike Soowal, who is the son of former Clemson football player Jeff Soowal, was a two-time first-team All-State golfer in Pennsylvania.
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