PHOTO CREDIT: Matt Stamey/UAA Communications

Gator Men’s Golf Enters Toughest Test of Spring in Vegas, Aims to Defend Title

One of the most competitive fields in college golf awaits the Florida men’s golf team in Las Vegas on Sunday.

Hosted by UNLV at the Southern Highlands Golf Club, the Southern Highlands Invitational boasts not one, not two, not three, but four of the country’s top-10 golf programs. This includes No. 4 Georgia Tech, No. 6 Southern California, No. 7 Auburn and No. 8 Texas. The 54-hole stroke play tournament is played over the course of three days, with 18 holes played per day.

No. 30 Florida comes off a fierce display at the annual Florida Gators Invitational. A runner-up finish to No. 3 Vanderbilt is a telling sign of growth in a young Florida team. But are the defending champions capable of stacking up to a field of this caliber?

The search for Florida’s identity

Florida is still in the process of establishing its identity. But the spring has been much kinder than the fall, with two top-five team finishes under its belt thus far. Sophomore John Axelsen only continues to grow, leading the team with a dominant tie for a fourth-place individual finish in the Florida Gator Invitational. Meanwhile, senior Gordon Neale has had a roller coaster of a start, finishing tied for second at Sea Best, and tied for 40th at home.

But the youth movement has arguably been the most defining. Freshman Aden Ye earned an SEC Freshman of the Week title, where his tie for 10th finish at the Florida Gator Invitational marked a collegiate best. Eugene Hong, another freshman, has appeared in all of Florida’s lineups this spring, and was a major factor in the wire-to-wire push for the home title, notching two birdies in the last two holes of his final round.

How-to: The recipe for repetition

In the 2018 edition, Florida ran away with a five-under finish, outlasting Texas Tech and Southern California by four strokes. Neale, Axelsen and sophomore Chris Nido were a part of last year’s winning team, each placing within the top-20 individually. They’ll return beside Eugene Hong, Manny Girona, and either Ye or Nido.

That’s right: Ye will battle against Nido in a playoff for the final spot in the team lineup. One of two will finalize the lineup, while the other will compete as an individual.

Familiar greens

Florida head coach J.C. Deacon revisits not only his alma mater but the place where his coaching career began. Deacon served as assistant coach for the UNLV men’s golf team from 2011-2014 before accepting the head coaching position at Florida. As a player, Deacon helped carry UNLV to the 2002 Mountain West title with a second-place individual finish.

See the action

Though play tees off on Sunday, March 3, Golfweek will stream coverage of the second round and the final round on March 4-5.

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