Willamette Men's Golf Team to Compete at NCAA Championships in Kentucky

Trent Jones (Sr., Kenmore, WA/Shorecrest HS)
Trent Jones (Sr., Kenmore, WA/Shorecrest HS)

By Robert McKinney, Assistant Athletics Director, Communications

SALEM, Ore. -- The Willamette University men's golf team will be competing at the 2019 NCAA Division III Men's Golf Championships when the tournament gets underway on Tuesday, May 14 at the Keene Trace Golf Club in Nicholasville, Ky. The Bearcats received the Northwest Conference's automatic bid to the NCAA Championships by winning the overall NWC Championship, including a first place finish at the NWC Tournament on May 27-29 in Walla Walla, Washington. The Bearcats are ranked #23 in the nation by the Golf Coaches Association of America (GCAA).

Willamette is participating in the NCAA Division III Men's Golf Championships for the first time in school history. Prior to joining the NCAA for the 1998-99 athletic year, the Bearcats qualified for the NAIA Men's Golf Championships eight times. Willamette placed 14th at the NAIA Championships in 1975 and 1976.

The 2019 NCAA Championships will be played on two courses at Keen Trace. In the first round on Tuesday, May 14, half of the teams will play on the Champion Trace course and half of the teams will play on the Keene Run course. Teams will change which course they play during the second round on Wednesday, May 15.

In the first round on Tuesday, Willamette will play at Champion Trace. WU's tee times will be spaced every 10 minutes from 8:20 a.m. until 9:00 a.m. (EDT), all on the 10th tee. In the second round on Wednesday, the Bearcats will compete at Keene Run. Tee times for Willamette will be every 10 minutes from 12:50 p.m. until 1:30 p.m. (EDT), all on the first tee. Willamette's tee times are three hours earlier on the West Coast (PDT).

Selections and Format for the NCAA Championships

A total of 42 teams qualified for the NCAA Championships this spring. Thirty-two teams received automatic bids by winning championships in conferences with seven or more teams. Three at-large bids went to independents or to teams in conferences without automatic bids. Seven at-large bids went to the top remaining teams. Each team will have five golfers in the tournament, with the four lowest rounds counting toward the team score each day. In addition, individual at-large bids went to six golfers who were not on a selected team.

All 216 golfers will compete in the first two rounds. At the end of the second round, the field will be reduced to 18 teams and the top six individuals not on one of the advancing teams. The final 96 golfers will compete in the final two rounds on Thursday, May 16 and Friday, May 17.

Competing for Willamette this week will be seniors Sam Hinton (Sr., Seaside, OR/Seaside HS), Trent Jones (Sr., Kenmore, WA/Shorecrest HS) and Kenneth Sheldon (Sr., Ocean Park, WA/Ilwaco HS), and freshmen Austin Davis (Fr., Culver City, CA/Culver City HS) and Andrew Kibbee (Fr., Kenmore, WA/Bothell HS).

Willamette Qualifies by Winning the NWC Championship

In order to qualify for the NCAA Championships, Willamette had to win the overall NWC title, which included results from the NWC Fall Classic, NWC Spring Classic and NWC Tournament. The NWC Fall Classic was worth one-fourth of the title and the NWC Spring Classic was worth one-fourth. The NWC Tournament counted for one-half of the title.

Kenneth Sheldon (Sr., Ocean Park, WA/Ilwaco HS) After the Fall Classic and the Spring Classic, Whitworth University led the standings with 16 points, followed by Willamette and Pacific Lutheran University with 13 points each. George Fox University was fourth with 10 points. Willamette took second at the Fall Classic (7 points) and third at the Spring Classic (6 points). In order to win the overall NWC Championship, Willamette needed to win the NWC Tournament, while a team other than Whitworth placed second, forcing the Pirates to finish third or lower in the tournament standings.

At the NWC Tournament, all nine teams faced very windy conditions in the first round at Wine Valley Golf Club. The weather improved in the second round. In the first round, Willamette handled the wind better than other teams and recorded a score of 309 for a nine-stroke lead. The Bearcats shot 289 in the second round to win the NWC Tournament title at 598. George Fox placed second at 607, with Whitworth in third at 617 and Pacific Lutheran in fourth at 618.

The Bearcats claimed the overall NWC Championship with 29 points (7-6-16). Whitworth, which won the Fall Classic and Spring Classic, placed second overall with 28 points (8-8-12). George Fox placed third overall with 24 points (5-5-14). Pacific Lutheran was fourth in the overall standings with 23 points (6-7-10).

Bearcats Overcome Windy Conditions on First Day of NWC Tournament

Willamette Head Coach Patrick Daugherty recalled the experience of battling extreme windy conditions on the first day and competing to win the NWC Championship on the second day of the NWC Tournament.

"The first day (Saturday, April 26) started with constant 25-mile-per-hour winds and gusts of 30-35," Daugherty said. "With high scores in the first nine holes, I knew that it was going to be a tough day. And not just physically, but mentally grueling ... constantly calculating wind, slope, and yardage. It really takes a lot out of you. The team played very well on Saturday, and that is attributed to them just embracing the wind, playing smart, and keeping the ball in play. With wind like that, you must let go of mechanics and techniques and play with feel and imagination.

"I knew we were playing solid on Saturday," Daugherty added. "I thought 305 to 310 would be good enough to make the top three and be in the hunt. I didn't expect that a 309 would be that big of a lead (Willamette by nine strokes)."

Playing the course at Wine Valley Golf Club in the first round was quite a challenge. The Bearcats' seniors all thought it was a difficult, yet rewarding day.

"The conditions on the first day were some of the most challenging I've ever played in," Jones said. "There were points when it was borderline unplayable and you could barely keep your balance over a shot. But we just had to keep reminding ourselves that everyone had to deal with it and just try to be the toughest mentally, and it paid off with a significant lead going into the second day."

"The windy conditions on Saturday were some of the toughest tests we have faced all year," Sheldon commented. "We weren't worried about any other teams and the possible scores they could put up. We put up the blinders and stayed focused on ourselves. We have been consistent, and trusted this mindset all year, which allowed us to perform the best under these extreme circumstances."

"The weather in round one was definitely not ideal. With pretty much every hole being exposed to the wind it was very difficult to stand up, let alone play golf," Hinton said. "I think this played to our advantage. Our team is very patient and creative. We knew that even if we didn't play to the score that we wanted everyone else was probably going to struggle more than us."

Willamette Plays Solid on Second Day to Claim Overall NWC Championship

As the NWC Tournament entered the second day, playing conditions had dramatically changed. The high winds were replaced by nearly calm conditions. Could the Bearcats maintain their lead and win the tournament, while grabbing the overall NWC title for a bid to the NCAA Championships?

"When we showed up Sunday, you could immediately feel the difference in the wind. What was almost 40 miles per hour the day before was now about five and felt like a very soft breeze," Daugherty said. "We knew there would be good scores put up that day, and that we still had a good amount of good golf ahead of us. We talked about what we wanted the mood to be and how we wanted to feel. We came up with one word ... one word that would keep us focused but loose, would give us an edge but also allow us to enjoy the moment. That one word was 'professional.' Just keep it professional. By doing that they respected the game, they respected the course, they respected their opponent, and they respected themselves."

Sam Hinton (Sr., Seaside, OR/Seaside HS) The Bearcats entered the second round needing to finish two positions higher than Whitworth in the tournament results. Willamette also had to finish in front of Pacific Lutheran.

"We knew going into Sunday that we could only control one thing," Daugherty noted. "That was winning. We could only go out and be worried with how we played and take it all the way. Out of our control was where and how Whitworth and Pacific Lutheran, and really the rest of the field, would finish. We knew that for thinigs to go our way, Whitworth couldn't finish higher than third, or closer than two places behind us."

"At that point, it didn't feel like there was any way we were going to give it away, and we finished with a really solid round to lock it up," Jones commented. "We all felt like we could win that tournament going into it, but weren't sure that the scenario that we needed to win the conference overall would play out. We've been so close the last three years and to see it happen in three of our players' senior year is unreal."

"All we had to do was manage our expectations and keep a level head and the tournament would be ours," Hinton said.

Bearcats Secure Bid to NCAA Championships

In the end, the results went Willamette's way.

"George Fox played great all weekend," Daugherty said. "They really put the pressure on Whitworth and PLU, which took a lot of pressure off of us. Really, it was the least stressful conference event we've ever played in or coached in. We gave it our best as coaches, and they played their best. At the end of the day, if that wasn't good enough we were satisfied. 

"To finish Sunday with the second lowest round of the day (GFU 288. WU 289), and for George Fox to keep the other teams at bay was awesome," Daugherty added. "We knew Whitworth and PLU would make a run, but really were just curious how Whitworth would improved ... and they did. they started the day in sixth and finished in third."

As the tournament neared its conclusion, it became clear that Willamette finally controlled its own destiny.

"I kind of knew with three holes left to play and GFU leading Whitworth by 11 strokes that we had a better than good chance to close this thing out," Daugherty said. "I told all the guys we were in a great position and that we just needed to stick to the plan, be professional and close it out. And that is what they did. Luck happens when preparation meets opportunity. We've been preparing for that moment for years, and this was our opportunity."

"Winning the conference championship was an extremely satisfying experience," Sheldon said. "Making it happen as a senior, alongside Trent and Sam was something special. We have been here for the long haul and supported each other through the ups and downs. Also, winning with the smallest team in the conference was a pretty big statement. We only have five guys on our roster and we travel with all five every week. We were able to feed off each other and get the job done when it mattered."

"This by far was the most difficult path to a conference championship and to nationals," Daugherty confirmed. "But to do it with these seniors and this group was incredibly special."