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Preseason No. 1 Men’s Golf Loaded With Talent, Experience

Oct. 14, 1999

CLEMSON, S.C. – Why all the hoopla about Clemson golf in the year 2000? Why a number-one ranking in every preseason poll?

A look to the roster, 1999 All-America teams and 1999 results gives the answer. The Tigers are loaded with experienced players, golfers who have been through the wars against top notch competition. And, these players are hungry Tigers, wanting to make amends for a disappointing finish to a near record setting 1998-99 season.

“We have three veteran players (Jonathan Byrd, John Engler, Lucas Glover) who are hungry to win a national title,” said Head Coach Larry Penley, who has taken Clemson to the NCAA national tournament all 16 years he has been head coach of the Clemson Tigers. “They have been to the NCAA championships at least twice each. They are a great influence on our younger players. It is like having three extra coaches. “

All three were named All-Americans last year and this is the first time in Clemson history in any sport that a team has 60 percent of its starting lineup composed of returning All-Americans. Byrd and Engler were first-team selections, while Glover was an honorable mention choice thanks to his eighth place finish at the NCAA championships.

Despite the high rankings and high expectations, Penley is approaching the season in segments, hoping his Tigers will be playing their best golf at the end of the season. A year ago, Clemson was ranked number-one almost the entire campaign. Clemson won five tournaments in the first nine events of the year, then seemed to mentally run out of gas.

“Our number-one goal is to win the ACC Tournament,” said Penley. “We felt we should have won it last year, but we finished a disappointing fourth. We will be going to the ACC Tournament with intensity, looking to bring home the championship.

“We obviouisly need to play much better at the regional . That last day might have been the worst day of my life (Clemson was the final qualifier in a playoff for the national field out of the East Regional). Finally, we want to compete for the national championship. We were in the lead after 36 holes, then didn’t do well the last 36 holes.

“Our national schedule should help us prepare for all three of these final tournaments. We will have seven-10 events against a national field this year, something we have done the last 10 years and those tournaments should prepare us to meet the challenge of the best in the country when it comes time to go to Auburn (for the NCAAs).

Clemson returns all five starters from last year’s team that finished eighth at the NCAA tournament, Clemson’s third straight top 10 finish. One of the goals for this year will be another top 10 finish. A Clemson sport has not had four straight top 10 finishes since the 1973-79 era when the Tiger soccer team had six straight top 10s.

A common denominator on the last three Clemson teams has been Jonathan Byrd. The senior from Columbia has been in nearly every event the last three seasons and that leadership will be important for Penley’s team this year.

“Jonathan is certainly our team leader, he leads by example. He is an extremely hard worker. He had a great summer finishing second at the Porter Cup, winning the Carlina’s Amateur and the Northeast Amateur and playing on the United States Walker Cup team. He adds so much to our team in so many areas. His level of dedication is extraordinary.

Just the seventh athlete in Clemson history, regardless of sport to be a first-team academic and on the course/field/court All-American, Byrd already ranks in the top five in Clemson history in rounds in the 60s, rounds of par or better, under par rounds top 10 finishes and overall stroke average. His 72.75 career average is fourth best in school history. Last season he led the Tigers with a 72.10 average. He finished in the top 10 in seven of his 13 events, had 10 rounds in the 60s and 16rounds under par.

“I look for an outstanding senior year from Jonathan. He is outstanding in all aspects of the game, but his ball striking is great. He is such a consistent scorer because he can get up and down. Jonathan is also a model student-athlete. You don’t see many student-athletes who are first-team All-American in the classroom and on the course. We can’t ask anymore from him.”

A look to the Clemson career stroke average leaders tells us that this could be the best team in Clemson history. Three of the top four stroke average leaders in Clemson’s storied golf history are on this team. In addition to Byrd’s number-four ranking, John Engler is first and Lucas Glover stands third. Only Chris Patton’s number two ranking with a 72.71 career average breaks up a clean sweep.

Engler and Glover are both juniors, but have already played 47 tournaments between them. Engler has a 72.51 career average, while Glover stands at 72.73. Last year, Engler was second to Byrd with a 72.43 average and led the team with21 rounds at par or better. Glover posted a 72.78 average and had five top 10 finishes to go with 17 rounds at par or better.

“Lucas and John have contrasting styles, but they have consistent and similar results. If you look at their season and career stroke averages they are almost the same. Glover will make more birdies, but he he has had consistently low scores, especially this fall. John will get up and down around the greens more often and is consistent from tee to green. The results are the same, they just reach the final score in a different fashion.”

“Lucas had a great sophomore year, finishing eighth at the NCAAs. He was our top player in Minnesota. He played in other player’s shadow during the regular season, but came on strong at the end and then had a great summer, winning the South Carolina Amateur over Jonathan Byrd.

“Lucas is another great ball striker and when he rolls in some putts he will be even more dangerous. He is a hard worker and one of the most team oriented players I have had.”

“John Engler was a first-team All-American who ranked in the top 10 in the nation all year. He was a candidate for the Walker Cup team. Not making that team will help him this year because it will serve as motivation in 2000. He has a great short game and is very consistent with his drives. He should be one of the top players in the country this year. Like Jonathan, he is also a great student and will be an academic All-America candidate this year.”

The first three spots on Penley’s dance card are obviously written in stone, but the last two positions are up for debate. If you listen to Penley, that is not a bad problem for this deep team.

“The four and five spots on our team will be the key to our rate of success nationally. We have eight players capable of being in our lineup, meaning we have five players competing for the final two spots. We tried to get each of them a couple of shots in the fall. We have a lot of young talent.”

Penley signed four freshman for this year. The list includes D.J. Trahan of Inman, SC, Michael Sims of Campobello, SC, Gregg Jones of Florence, SC and Matt Hendrix of Aiken, SC. As you can see, there is plenty of talent right in Penley’s backyard.

“D.J. Trahan is a veteran of eight national junior tournaments and he has a lot more experience than most first-year freshmen. He needs to work on his short game, but he is a terrific young player who probably will be in our lineup.” Trahan shot a 68 in his first event for the Tigers, the Ping/Golfweek Preview. It was the lowest score by a Clemson golfer in his first event in 12 years. Trahan finished sixth in the 18-team national field.

“Ben Duncan is also a great young talent with significant experience, especially for a red-shirt freshman,” said Penley. “He has been feeling his way through his freshman year, but has continued to show improvement.” Duncan also got his career off to a good start, finishing as Clemson’s third best player at The Ridges in September.

“Jani Saari and Michel Hoey are returning starters from last year’s NCAA tournaments. They have played during the pressure of the biggest tournaments and that is important.” Saari was Clemson’s third best player at the NCAAs last year and finished 24th overall, quite an accomplishment for a sophomore who was making just his third tournament appearance. Hoey averaged 73.85 for his freshman year, fifth best in Clemson history for a Tiger freshman.

Brennen King is another veteran who has seen action this year and is capable of making a big contribution. Trip James and Ben Johnson are two other veterans who could be in the picture in the spring.

“It is great to have so much competition. It is really important when it comes to daily practice and that should carry over into tournaments. They will push each other all year and that is what is so good about having depth.”

Overall, Penley says this is a team that has great ball-striking ability, but it must improve its putting if it is to be a championship contender at Auburn next June. “Ball striking is definitely a strength of this team. We really drive the ball well from top to bottom. We also have a solid iron game. We are trying to find ways to make more putts go down. We have worked on the mental approach and that leads to better scoring. Overall, we have to improve our shortgame. When we do that look out. You will see some very low scores.”

This is one of the most experienced teams in the nation, and hopefully that will mean victories and a high national ranking, as Clemson strives to win its first ever National Championship.

“I hope we benefit from the experience of being number-one last year. It should help. We carried that ranking most of last year, but it took its toll by the end of the season. We played like it had in the ACC and NCAA Tournaments. I hope we learned from that.

“We won’t worry about our national ranking until April and May. We are playing our entire season to reach a high point in April and May. We are going to play eight or even nine guys in the Fall and that might cause our ranking to fall some, but it should make a difference in April and May.