Two golfers finish in top 20 in Miss.
After a late charge up the leaderboard at the 60th Border Olympics on Mar. 25-26, the golf team looked to do the same at the Bancorp South Intercollegiate hosted by the University of Mississippi in Madison, Miss. Instead, Mother Nature intervened, shortening the tournament to 36 holes and leaving the Owls in 13th place after the two rounds.
Coming off their best performance of the season, a fourth place finish against a deep field at the Border Olympics, Rice hoped to duplicate their performance in a field featuring two top-40 teams in addition to three Southeastern Conference schools.
Senior Michael Whitehead, as he has for the entire season, led Rice in the first round, shooting a 69 which left him in a tie for third place overall. Freshmen Chris Contreras and Jeff Wibawa also provided solid scores for the Owls, firing scores of 74 and 72, respectively. Sophomore Brock Wilson shot 79, giving the team a cumulative score of 294. While their score left them in 10th place, Rice was only three strokes out of fifth place.
As of late, the Owls have been able to play their best golf in the latter rounds of tournaments. That trend did not bear itself out at the Bancorp, as the team could not capitalize on Contreras' even-par 72. Whitehead reminded spectators that he's still human, posting a 77, snapping a five-round streak of scoring in the 60s. Wibawa finished with a 76, while junior Erik Mayer shot 80, giving the Owls a second-round score of 305. Head Coach Drew Scott (Wiess '98) cited the lack of production from the bottom of the lineup as the reason for the poor score.
"In the first round, we had to count a 79, and the second round was basically the same thing [having to count an 80]," Scott said. "The production from the backside just wasn't that strong."
While the Bancorp was scheduled for 54 holes, a weather delay midway through play on Monday afternoon forced tournament organizers to change the event to 36 holes. While the change prevented Rice from making a move up the leaderboard, Scott refused to use it as an excuse.
"We didn't have the play in any rain throughout the event, and it was the first time all year we've had any sort of delay," Scott said. "The delay wasn't really an unfair advantage to any team, so it just wasn't a very good week for us."
With their regular season slate of tournaments now behind them, the Owls will look to rest this coming weekend before traveling to Texarkana, Ark. for the Conference USA Championship, starting April 24. While Rice entered the conference championship last year with a reasonable chance of qualifying for an at-large berth, this year they travel to Texarkana Country Club needing to grab C-USA's automatic berth to the NCAA Regionals.
While the team will obviously depend on Whitehead's strong play, low rounds from freshman Contreras and Wibawa will be crucial if the Owls have dreams of continuing their season. Contreras' 17th place finish at Bancorp is an encouraging sign for the team. The increased playing time the freshman has had recently factored into his improved performance.
"He's getting more and more comfortable each week," Scott said. "His responsibility isn't just to be on the team, and we expect contributions out of him."
While the whole lineup will need to produce, it is still clear that Whitehead sets the tempo for the team. This year the Sugar Land native has received back-to-back C-USA Golfer of the Week awards, as well as the National Player of the Week from Golfweek. Whitehead's stellar season, which has featured eight top-10 finishes, has definitely earned the respect of his teammates.
"It's Whitey's world, and we're all just living in it," Contreras said.
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