May 28, 2010
BY JOSH PATE
You can't technically call it a home match, but it's darn close. The team: Tennessee's 24th-seeded golf squad. The venue: The Honors Course in Ooltewah, one of the state's premiere golf destinations. And when the NCAA Men's Golf Championships tee off Tuesday, the Vols will be on familiar territory.
They've played the course several times, and for UT freshman Jay Vandeventer it was his home course when he attended high school at Baylor in Chattanooga. Then two weeks ago, after finishing a disappointing eighth in the SEC Championships, head coach Jim Kelson took his team for a three-day excursion to The Honors to get acclimated with the environment on a personal level: the team split up and held their own Ryder Cup-style of tournament. And all it did was represent a dangling carrot in front of a hungry team.
"We were able to relax after finals and enjoy the whole Honors experience," Kelson said. "Most importantly we were able to gain some valuable insight on how to play the course. We feel like there's some local knowledge involved. The competition was good. There was some team building there. It was a great three days."
Now the Vols look for more greatness.
UT finished tied for third in the San Diego Regional, which propelled the Vols back to their home state for the NCAAs. They are the only team from Tennessee competing in the NCAA Championships, which get under way on Tuesday. UT will begin on Hole 10 paired with Duke and North Florida. Kelson believes location is a huge advantage.
"I think we're relieved to be able to jump into that van and drive an hour and a half to get to The Honors rather than jumping on airplanes," said Kelson, who will be leading UT to its second consecutive NCAA berth and fifth since 2003. "It's going to make it a much easier trip this week. The No. 1 thing, it's on a great golf course. And the fact that it's down the road is among so many of the positives."
Tennessee began the season red hot with two tournament victories in the fall and finishes of seventh or better in every tournament. But in the spring, things got a little tougher. Even the players acknowledged that the layoff over Christmas Break was tough on them getting back into the swing of things come February. It all culminated at the SECs, where the high expectations for the Vols didn't mesh with the reality of their finish.
That's when Kelson and first-year assistant coach Casey VanDamme took the players on the retreat. Had it not been for their friendly competition at The Honors, Tennessee would have gone more than a month without competitive play heading into regionals.
"After the SEC, that was obviously a pretty tough pill to swallow," Kelson said. "So making the championship is going to put us in position to have a real good year. I feel like this team should have had a really good year this year. It puts us in a position to end the year on a really high note."
Kelson points to a variety of reasons as to why the Vols have made back-to-back NCAA appearances for the first time since a three-year appearance from 1995-97. There's been improvement of the Nos. 4 and 5 players. There's the ultimate consistency of volunteer assistant coach Randy Wylie and team psychologist Joe Whitney. But one addition this season has made a big improvement for Tennessee: the addition of VanDamme.
"I think Casey, our new assistant coach, has done a great job with our team," Kelson said. "He's been helping them with their technique. He really brought a breath of fresh air and has some new ideas. He's been able to make practice interesting and fun."
VanDamme, who is from Michigan, worked as a Master Instructor at the Jim McLean Golf School in Palm Springs, Calif., and Traverse City, Mich. Bringing his teaching skills to the UT staff has been instrumental in fall victories and another NCAA trip.
The biggest thing, VanDamme said, is that Tennessee is an instructional school and coaches work to improve the players' technique rather than take a hands-off approach.
"There are very few schools that have coaches that will do much with the players' swings," VanDamme said. "They don't want to mess with them. It's such a mental game that they're afraid to take away from that. So we definitely are not afraid of that. I think that's a big advantage."
There's that word again: advantage. As Tennessee prepares to head south down Interstate 75 from Knoxville for Tuesday's competition, the team believes it can carry that advantage along. Players have credited the coaches for increasing expectation and teaching techniques. Coaches have credited each other and the players for stepping things up. And now this -- a trip to NCAAs at a course with which the Vols are very familiar. It all adds up to what else? An advantage.
"We're the only school representing Tennessee in the finals," VanDamme said. "We've played this course a lot and I think that's to our advantage. So we're really looking forward to it."