Whitehead rolls to first career tournament victory
With seven top-10 finishes in the year, including a second place finish against a stacked field at the recent Duck Invitational on Mar. 21- 22, senior Michael Whitehead was bound to break through at some point. That point came on Saturday at the 60th Border Olympics in Laredo, when Whitehead finished with a final-round 62 for his first collegiate victory.
Prior to the golf team's trip to the Border Olympics, the Owls ventured up to Eugene, Ore. to face off against a field that included perennial power No. 1 Oklahoma State University, as well as a host of PAC-10 schools. While Rice finished near the bottom of the leaderboard due to a disappointing opening round, Whitehead finished with a final-round 66, the low round of the day, to tie for second with Oregon State University's Alex Moore. University of Washington's Chris Williams took the individual title, with Moore and Williams ranked among the top 100 collegiate golfers. While Whitehead's finish in Eugene definitely contributed to his outstanding performance in Laredo, Head Coach Drew Scott (Wiess '98) thought his season-long performance has led up to this point.
"It's just been a continual momentum stream since the second event of the year," Scott said. "He really went down to Laredo looking to step it up and not leave anything out there.
Following his strong finish in Eugene, Whitehead opened the Border Olympics with a 68, putting him near the top of the leaderboard. The Sugar Land native then finished Friday's second round with a 67. While a cumulative score of nine-under par through two rounds of play would most likely lead, University of Arkansas' Sebastian Cappelen had other ideas. Cappelen shot 69-64 and lead Whitehead by two strokes heading into Saturday's final round.
While Whitehead was playing strongly, the Owls were receiving contributions from the remaining team members as well. Freshman Jeff Wibawa shot 72 and 73 in the first and second rounds, respectively, while junior Erik Mayer posted his lowest round of the year, a second-round 69. Wibawa would go on to finish in a tie for 21st, while Meyer's three-round score of 220 would put him in a tie for 25th.
The Owls would continue their strong play during Saturday's final round, posting a team score of 274, the lowest single round score in Rice golf history. Wibawa and fellow freshman Chris Contreras posted matching three-under 69s, while sophomore Brock Wilson pitched in with a two-over 74. Contreras finished in a tie for 67th, while Wilson finished tied for 75th.
Yet it was Whitehead who once again led the charge for Rice with a final-round 62, setting a course record at Laredo Country Club by recording 10 birdies and no bogeys to stave off Cappelen, who finished with a final-round 66. Whitehead finished two shots clear of Cappelen and eight shots ahead of the third-place finishers, Baylor University's Joakim Mikkelsen and New Mexico State University's Timothy Madigan. Whitehead cited his past runner-up finishes as allowing him to notch his first career victory.
"In the past, whenever I got into the lead, I'd stop focusing on my game and start focusing on the lead," Whitehead said. "In Laredo, I was able to control my temperament a bit more and really focused on what I was trying to do, which was win."
Whitehead's 62 also set the Rice record for lowest score in a single round, enabling Rice to finish fourth in a field that featured five of the top 50 teams in the country. The fourth place finish gives the Owls a ton of momentum heading into The Bankcorp South Intercollegiate in Madison, Miss. Coach Scott thought the team's performance could be a game-changer during the team's final two events.
"Our finish that last day was nothing short of miraculous and was really a huge team effort," Coach Scott said. "Ole Miss won't be as deep as Border, and conference will only have 11 teams, but they definitely changed our mindset in Laredo, and they're looking to contend."
The Bankcorp South Intercollegiate is hosted by the University of Mississippi and will feature a number of Southeastern Conference schools that will provide Whitehead and Rice with a stiff test. The event will be the team's final regular season event before traveling to Texarkana, Ark. for the Conference USA Championship in the latter half of April. With only two events left in his Rice career, it may be time to start thinking about Whitehead's place in Rice golf history. Whitehead, however, refuses to give himself the title of Rice's greatest golfer.
"Chris Brown [Brown ‘10] won two tournaments his senior year, while Brad Lardon (Lovett ‘88) made it all the way to the PGA Tour," Whitehead said.
Yet the presence of the remaining two events, plus a certain appearance at NCAA Regionals, will give Whitehead the opportunity to establish himself as the greatest Rice golfer. However, Brown holds a different opinion than his former teammate.
"Well, I guess I only held the title of Rice's greatest golfer for one year," Brown said.
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