How good has the Virginia men’s golf team been this year? Check out the six-day stretch Jimmy Stanger had in February. Stanger, a senior from Tampa, got a sponsor’s exemption to the PGA Tour’s Valspar Championship on a Thursday. The following Tuesday, he set a school record by shooting a 62 in the John Burns Intercollegiate in Hawaii.
Virginia won the John Burns with a team score of 29-under; it was UVA’s fourth win in five events this season.
“It’s been a fun year, obviously,” UVA coach Bowen Sargent said in a phone interview last week. “We’re looking forward to the remainder of the spring.”
Sargent has been at UVA for 13 years and has and quietly built the Virginia golf program into a national contender during that time. The quiet might not last for long, however. This year’s Cavaliers are ranked 3rd in the country by Golfstat and 8th by Golfweek and could be legitimate national title contenders come May.
Sargent’s team is stacked with experience. Virginia returns all five of its starters from last year’s NCAA Championship, including headliners Stanger and fellow senior Derek Bard. Bard, of course, is the former runner-up in the US Amateur who played in the 2016 Masters and US Open.
“Those two guys have really set the tone for the team this year and for what we’re trying to accomplish as a program,” Sargent said. “I think they want to go out on a good note.”
Stanger has had a ridiculous year so far. He’s collected four top-ten finishes in five tournaments, and he finished T-1 at the Golf Club of Georgia Collegiate against one of the best fields in the country. Stanger’s strong play has vaulted him to a #8 national ranking as an individual.
The rest of the Virginia squad has shown flashes of similar brilliance. Bard finished T-2 at the Carpet Capital Classic to start the season, and he followed that up with a T-5 at the Bank of Tennessee event in October. Freshman Andrew Orischak placed T-10 at the John Burns. Sophomore Thomas Walsh posted a T-2 and a T-6 during the fall.
“He’s been a very solid 3 or 4 man for us, and played very well over the last year and a half,” Sargent said of Walsh.
Not to be outdone, junior Danny Walker won the South Beach International Amateur in December and finished T-3 at the John Burns.
Walker “has an extraordinary amount of talent,” Sargent said. He’s “probably going to be our next superstar.”
The success of Sargent’s team isn’t an accident. He’s been slowly improving the program throughout his tenure and now has it in a place where it can consistently compete with the national powers. In addition to golf coaching from Sargent, Virginia players benefit from mental coaching by renowned sports psychologist Bob Rotella.
Rotella’s book, Golf Is Not A Game Of Perfect, is one of the best-selling golf books of all time. He’s worked with major champions like Rory McIlroy, Darren Clarke, and Keegan Bradley, and he serves as a volunteer assistant for UVA. Sargent gushed with appreciation when talking about Rotella’s mark on the program.
“The guys on our team and the guys that are playing at the next level, they would all tell you that they wouldn’t be there without him,” Sargent said. “You won’t find a better person, a more giving, caring, genuine person.”
Virginia has also benefited from a new workout regimen. The team is working with Max Prokopy of the UVA Speed Clinic to create golf-specific, individualized workouts for each of the players. Prokopy uses 3-D analysis and testing to determine each player’s strengths and weaknesses.
“One kid may need hip flexibility. One kid may need to get stronger,” Sargent said. “Max has provided that flexibility with us to really focus on each kid individually and try to make them the best they can be.”
The next step for the program comes with the construction of a new golf facility at Birdwood. The Virginia Athletics Foundation has started fundraising for the project, which is estimated to cost $8 million. The facility will include six indoor hitting bays, a putting studio, and a number of other bells and whistles.
Sargent believes the new facility will put the UVA program on par (pun intended) with the national golf powers. The hitting bays, for example, will allow Virginia players to practice in Charlottesville during the winter months. Among the east coast golf powers, Virginia is the furthest north, UVA players can’t always count on mild winters like this past one. The new facility will help the Cavaliers keep up with the practice pace of warmer-weather ACC and SEC schools.
Sargent didn’t mince words when discussing goals for the rest of the season. The team has an annual goal to make it into match play at the NCAA Championship and certainly has the talent and depth to make a run. But the Cavaliers also have a goal that’s closer to home. UVA has never won an ACC team title in over 60 years of conference competition. The Cavaliers finished 2nd in 2010 and 2012.
“For us not to have an ACC championship is a question that needs to be answered,” Sargent said. “I think this team is very focused on putting that to rest.”