Coming Off Dramatic One-Stroke Win in Ivy Tourney, Princeton Men’s Golf Gained Experience in NCAAs
ON COURSE: Members of the Princeton University men’s golf team enjoy the moment as they got ready to compete last month in the NCAA Athens Regional at the University of Georgia’s home course in Athens, Ga. The Tigers won the Ivy League Championship in late April to earn their first trip to the NCAA Regionals since 2013. Princeton ended up finishing 13th of 13 teams in Athens in a valuable learning experience for a young squad that brought a junior, three sophomores, and a freshman to Georgia. (Photo provided courtesy of Princeton’s Office of Athletic Communications)
By Bill Alden
Will Green sensed that his Princeton University men’s golf team could do something special this spring, although he didn’t really have the numbers to back up that feeling.
“I had been telling people all spring long we were going to win the Ivy title,” said Princeton head coach Green.
“It was based on a belief in the team we had. There wasn’t any reason for me to think that except I just really thought that we were going to play well.”
When the Tigers finished eighth in their Princeton Invitational in the final tune-up before the Ivy League Championships, Green’s vision looked like a pipe dream.
“After we got out of the Invitational, I was talking to some friends, saying ‘I don’t know how we can beat Yale, they are really good,’” recalled Green.
“Their best player is three shots better than anybody else in the league and their second best player is probably better than almost anybody in the league. If we were going to do it, it was going to require five guys playing well.”
Following that blueprint, Princeton made Green look prescient as it won the Ivy tournament by one stroke, carding a 23-over 875 in the three-round competition, with Columbia taking second at 876 and Yale coming in third with a score of 877.
“The refrain all week was ‘have the courage to make mistakes and then have the pride to make up for them if you make them,’” said Green.
“A lot of times young golfers are more worried about screwing up than they are about making a good decision and swinging freely after it.”
Tiger stars Evan Quinn and Sam Clayman displayed that courage to set a tone for the tournament, which was held at the Hidden Creek Club in Egg Harbor, N.J. Junior Quinn fired a 3-under 68 in the opening round while sophomore Clayman was right behind with a 69 as Princeton took an eight-stroke lead over second-place Yale in the team standings.
“I don’t think we felt like we played exceptionally well; we thought we had played solid,” said Green.
“Evan goes out and shoots a great number, Sam shoots a really good number, and the rest of the week every player did exactly what he needed to do when we needed him to do that.”
The Tigers needed some clutch play as the tournament tightened up with Princeton’s lead over Yale dwindling to two strokes after the second round.
“Yale had the best team all year long, they had the best players so we knew they were going to come after us,” said Green.
“There were a couple of things that we held as beliefs. Yale hadn’t been pushed all year; they have gotten off to great starts and have basically dominated the rest of the teams every tournament so they hadn’t had any pressure on them. We knew that we had a really good driving team, we are not especially long but we put the ball in play. At Hidden Creek, if you put the ball in play you are going to give yourself a chance to get the ball on the green and maybe make a putt or two. We knew if they were going to beat us, they were going to have to play really, really well.”
On the final day of competition, Princeton didn’t play well at the outset as Yale and Columbia both made a charge.
“We started poorly in the first six or seven holes, we had lost our lead and we were probably five or six shots back,” said Green.
“I am standing in the 10th tee waiting for the first group to make the turn and in my head, I am thinking third place isn’t bad. As soon as that first group came through, it was ‘OK, we have nine holes to win an Ivy title, let’s go get it.’ We had a bunch of birdies and suddenly we had the lead back again on around the 11th hole. We knew we had to play the last three holes somewhere around even par, and fortunately for us we played the last four holes three under as a team.”
Emotions were running high for the Tigers after coming out on top in the tightly-bunched trio at the top of the leader board.
“When the last group goes through and we know we have won, there were lots of hugs everywhere,” said Green as Quinn finished second individually at four-over 214, with Clayman tying for third at 218, freshman Max Ting tying for seventh at +7, sophomore Jake Mayer tying for 22nd at +12, and sophomore Jack Roberts tying for 26th at +14.
“I remember I walked down the the front edge of the 18th green and turned my back to everybody because I had to get a moment to compose myself. I was emotional, going from where we were two weeks prior to where we ended up there.”
Going on to the NCAA Athens, Ga., regional in mid-May, the Tigers struggled in the three-round event, coming in 13th of 13 teams at the site.
“It was tough; we went down there and the course was extremely long and very difficult,” said Green, whose team had a cumulative score of +68 at regional that was won by host Georgia with a -8.
“They used to host a Web.com event there and it always had the highest scoring average. I think having not been on the stage for a long time, we were a little shell shocked. The guys were a little tired, it had been a really, really long season.”
In Green’s view, his players gained some lessons at the competition that could help them to get back on that national stage.
“We do have a very young team; we took a junior, three sophomores, and a freshman to Georgia,” said Green.
“They are going to continue to learn how to balance the academic and athletic component. They are gong to continue to learn how to play against the best players. You go to a stage like that and you feel like you have to play perfect and you can’t do that in golf. You have to make the same decisions you have been making all year, you have to make the same swings you have been making all year and hope that some putts will fall. We learned a lot as a team being there, it was a great experience.”
With its core of young talent and an upbeat team chemistry, Green believes that the Tigers can do some great things going forward.
“I do feel like the culture that we have is the biggest differentiator; we have got eight guys focused on getting better,” said Green.
“We have got eight guys that believe in one another and eight guys that support one another. When you have eight players playing together as one, it is really tough to beat. We have three good freshmen coming in next year. We are going to be a big team but I think we are going to be a deep team. We had year-end meetings with all of the players and the focus of the conversation was listen, the reason we are where we are is because we support one another. It is going to be that much harder with that many players but if we can continue to do it that way, the sky is the limit.”