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Golf fails to take tournament title after subpar first day

By Paul Fitzgerald     4/15/10 7:00pm

The golf team entered the Jim West Intercollegiate on April 12 looking to lock up an NCAA appearance with their third team title of the season. Instead, they posted a third-place finish, leaving themselves with work to do in the upcoming Conference USA Tournament. After what could only be described as one of the most successful season starts in recent Rice golf history, which saw the squad score two team titles and post six out of seven top-five finishes early this season, the Owls have struggled to the finish line. What at once seemed like an almost-certain NCAA berth is no longer such a sure thing.

Last week, Rice traveled down to Victoria, Texas, to take part in the ten-team Jim West Intercollegiate, hosted by Texas State University, knowing that a team title would put it back in prime position for an appearance at NCAA Regionals. Instead of a fast start, the Owls hurt themselves with a disappointing first round that saw the team shoot a cumulative score of 299, putting the Owls back in fourth place. Junior Michael Whitehead led Rice with a one-under par 71, while freshman Jade Scott shot a two-over 74.

Needing a solid second round, Rice bounced back admirably, carding a cumulative 292 to put itself in a tie for third with the hosts. Whitehead once again led Rice with a one-under 71 and sat in fifth place after two rounds. After a uncharacteristically poor first round, senior Christopher Brown shot an even-par 72 to help lead the Owls' comeback. Senior Michael Buttacavoli's 73 also aided Rice.

Sitting nine shots back of Sam Houston State University, the team looked to get hot and catch up to the Bearkats. Despite finishing with the second-best team score in third-round action, the Owls were unable to catch SHSU and finished 12 strokes back in third place.

While Rice did not achieve the victory it was looking for, Head Coach Drew Scott (Wiess '98) saw strengths in the team's performance.

"Anytime you're talking about going into the postseason, you want to play your best," Scott said. "At Mississippi we played better; this week was better, so we're getting close to where we need to be. We want to play our best at conference and hopefully contend."

Buttacavoli's one-under 71 second round allowed the senior to post his seventh top-ten finish, while Whitehead's 74 finish left him in a tie for fifth place. Brown's second consecutive even-par round put him in a tie for 18th place, while Scott's three-round score of 227 was good for a tie for 25th. After an amazing fall, in which the freshman won an individual title in his fourth career event, Scott's spring has been plagued by inconsistent play.

Despite his recent struggles, coaches and teammates are confident the talented Scott will play a crucial role for Rice down the stretch.

"You have expectations that someone will play well based on their past performance, and he has shown the ability to win and ability to finish in the top ten," Scott said. "We would love to have him handle three rounds and compete for an individual title, and hopefully he brings out his best."

Playing in only his second collegiate event, freshman Brock Wilson finished in a tie for 30th. Buttacavoli was happy Rice got production out of its five-spot, a position that has been an issue all year for the Owls.

"I think Brock's been working hard, and that showed, especially to come out and play like that as a freshman in your second tournament," Buttacavoli said. "He's playing the best he has all year, and it really lets the other guys relax and play their games."

With their regular season now over, Rice is ranked 66th in the country by Golfstat and is sitting directly on the bubble of postseason play. As a result, the conference tournament has become critical for the Owls' postseason hopes. While a top-three finish would most likely put Rice into Regionals, Buttacavoli says the team has loftier aspirations for next week's three-day, three-round event at Red Tail Golf Club in Sorrento, Fla.

"We don't want to have to wait until the [conference] tournaments are over and hope things fall into place," Buttacavoli said. "We want to walk off the green after the final round secure that we're into Regionals.

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