Sept. 1, 2008
Based on returning talent and experience, the Clemson golf team should be one of the candidates for the 2009 national championship. The preseason Golf World Coaches poll shows the Tigers have a chance by virtue of a number-six national ranking.
The Tigers return all five starters from the 2008 team that finished fifth at the NCAA Championships at Purdue University, just seven shots behind national champion UCLA. The last time Clemson returned all five starters from an NCAA Tournament team was 2003, the year Clemson won the national championship.
“We have a deep team, and should be one of the teams in the hunt for the championship at Inverness in May,” said Clemson Head Coach David May and Phillip Mollica, and juniors Kyle Stanley, Ben Martin, Sam Saunders and Luke Hopkins. We also have some outstanding freshmen who could be factors.
“The veterans have experienced the highs and the lows. They know what it feels like to lose in a playoff at the regional, and know what it feels like to accomplish a top five national finish. So they know what it takes to get the job done.
“In the past we have been called the young and talented Tigers. We aren’t young any more. We have experience. The experience we gained in the NCAA tournament last year with a third place at the regional and fifth place at the national should give us confidence to have an outstanding year. It is time for us to win some tournaments.”
In many ways this is one of the most talented teams Penley has had in his 26 years at Clemson. At least you could make that claim in terms of stroke average. The current Clemson team has four of the top 25 career stroke average players in school history. Four of the team members played in the United States Amateur, including three who made it to match play.
That list is topped by All-American Kyle Stanley, who has a 71.72 career average, second best in Clemson history behind PGA Tour player D.J. Trahan. Stanley has been named first-team All-ACC each of the last two seasons and has 12 career top 10 finishes in those two seasons.
Stanley had a team best 72.44 stroke average last year, including 14 under-par rounds and eight more at par. He had a team best six top 10 finishes, including a seventh place finish at the NCAA National championship to close the season. He led the team in birdies last year with 138, so he is capable of going low. A first-team All-American and ACC Player of the Year as a freshman, Stanley was an honorable mention selection last year as a sophomore.
“Kyle Stanley has been an outstanding leader for us on the course. I look for him to continue that leadership and become a little more vocal this year. I welcome that. He had an outstanding summer, including his performance at the US Open and his victory at the Southern Amateur. That Southern Amateur win might have been his most important performance of the summer.”
Stanley, who is ranked as the fourth best player in the nation according to the Golf World Preseason rankings and was ranked among the top five amateurs in the world in the summer of 2008 by Golfweek, qualified for the 2008 US Open. Just the second active Clemson golfer to play in the United States Open, he finished just one shot short of making the cut. He then won the Southern Amateur in July with a 40-foot putt on the first playoff hole. It was his second win at the Southern Amateur and it will give him a berth in the Arnold Palmer Invitational on the PGA Tour in 2009.
Sam Saunders was one of the most improved players on the Clemson team last year. The sophomore from Windermere, FL enhanced his stroke average by exactly one shot per round over his freshman year. In 11 events last year he had a 73.42 stroke average, second best on the team. He was Mr. Consistency in terms of his scoring average as he shot between 71-73 in 18 of his 33 rounds.
Saunders was named a first-team All-Regional choice by the Golf Coaches Association and made the academic honor roll each semester. He had a strong finish to the season with a tie for 11th at the NCAA Regional at Bremerton, WA, and a 38th place finish at the national tournament. His 11th place finish at the Regional tied for the best among Clemson golfers. His final round 74 at the national tournament was the best that day among Clemson golfers, and was a big reason Clemson finished fifth in the nation.
“Sam has matured as a player over his first two years, and is on the verge of a breakout year,” said Penley. “His confidence level is growing. We saw what he is capable of last summer when he won the US Amateur qualifier in Haines City, FL by 14 shots with a 14-under par score over two rounds.” Saunders also had four top 15 finishes at amateur tournaments over the summer.
Phillip Mollica is a third Golf Coaches Association All-Region choice on the 2008-09 roster. The senior from Anderson, SC had a 74.00 stroke average last year, seventh best on the team, but he was second in rounds in the 60s with six. He had a couple of rounds in the fall and two NCAA Tournament rounds that ruined his stroke average for the year.
“For 90 percent of the spring, Phillip was our second best player,” said Penley. “He had six rounds in the 60s during the spring, more than any other player, and had a very strong showing at the West Regional. He has as much ability as anyone on our team.”
Mollica finished third at the Hootie @ Bulls Bay Invitational in March, the top finish for a Clemson golfer in any tournament all year. He was 11th at the NCAA West Regional to tie Sam Saunders for team honors, with a 216 score, even par.
Mollica is a veteran of 20 career tournaments for Clemson, but he also has significant experience as an Amateur. He won the Monroe Amateur in 2008, his second victory at that national amateur event. In fact, he is the only two-time winner of the Monroe. He also captured the 2007 North-South Amateur at Pinehurst.
Ben Martin is a fourth returning starter from last year’s fifth ranked team. Martin had a 73.57 stroke average a year ago when he was Clemson’s most consistent player in postseason play. Martin finished eighth at the ACC Tournament, 16th at the NCAA West Regional and 29th at the NCAA Championships. His eighth place finish at the ACC Tournament was the best among Clemson golfers at that event.
Martin has been Mr. Consistency over his career. He had a 73.47 stroke average as a freshman when he made first-team All-ACC and 73.57 as a sophomore. If there had been an All-ACC vote after the NCAA Tournament he most certainly would have been selected. He has made first-team Academic All-ACC each of his first two years.
The native of Greenwood, who lost in a playoff with D.J. Trahan for a position in the 2008 United States Open, ranks 16th in career stroke average in Clemson history with a 73.53 figure, second behind Stanley among active Tigers. “We have great confidence in Ben’s abilities. His game made a strong all-around improvement over last year and he was one of our most reliable players at the end of the season.”
Clemson’s fifth returning starter is its most experienced player overall and in NCAA Tournaments. David May is a senior from Auburn, NY who has been a starter on two top 10 teams at Clemson. As a freshman he finished 32nd at the NCAA Championships in Oregon to tie for Tiger team honors, then finished 38th at the national championships at Purdue last year. May has played eight NCAA national tournament rounds and his score has counted in all eight.
“All you need to know about David is that his score has counted every time he has teed it up in a national NCAA round. He is always there and will be one of the players who provides great leadership this year.”
May is a veteran of 28 tournaments and 85 total rounds in his Clemson career and has a 74.14 stroke average, 24th best in Clemson history. He has finished in the top 20 at the ACC Tournament each of the last three years.
Luke Hopkins is a sixth returning player who has been a starter during his career. Last year as a red-shirt sophomore he had a 74.33 stroke average in six tournaments. His top performance came at The Brickyard when he finished 11th with a three-under par score of 213, helping Clemson to a second-place finish.
Clemson’s 12 man roster includes six freshmen, three red-shirt and three first year. The red-shirt group includes Mike Soowal and Mike Muscatell and Brewer Bradshaw. Burger advanced to the second round of match play at the United States Amateur in August and his fifth place finish at the South Carolina Amateur was the best among all active Clemson golfers.
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