BOULDER – For the fifth time in his eight seasons as the University of Colorado’s men’s golf coach, Roy Edwards has his guys in the NCAA Regionals. But the Buffaloes have advanced no further, and if that next step comes this spring it will be taken by the youngest team Edwards has ever put on a course.
Don’t, however, envision these Buffs as taking baby steps; Edwards’ kids have clout.
“It’s by far the youngest (team) I’ve had – and by quite a bit,” he told me the other day in his office. “Of the five guys who have competed the most, I’ve never had a senior in the lineup. It’s been almost always three freshmen, sometimes two, but it was a mix. But those guys grew up . . .
“I definitely don’t look at them as freshmen now. And most of them haven’t performed as freshmen; they’ve performed well and played with a lot of confidence. They’ll be ready to go. They’ll be playing in a golf tournament just like any other. These guys have done that a bunch.”
The “grizzled veteran” among the fivesome that Edwards will take to the Auburn (Ala.) University Golf Club on Tuesday – regional play begins on Thursday – is junior David Oraee, of Greeley. He’s played in every tournament since arriving at CU and is counted on by Edwards to be the lead dog for sophomore Philip Juel-Berg and freshmen Ethan Freeman and twins Jeremy and Yannik Paul.
“I try to remember that I’m the ‘older’ guy and help the guys as much as I can,” Oraee said. “I remember where I was in my freshman year, but I also get out of their way and let them do their thing.”
Thus far, they’ve done that quite well and Edwards is counting on it continuing on Auburn’s 7,326-yard, par-72 course. But in this regional, one of six nationally, there’s scarcely room for a bad round. Competing with CU in the 14-team field are the two previous NCAA champions – Texas and Alabama, respectively. Alabama is the No. 1 regional seed, Texas No. 3 behind Virginia Tech. CU, the No. 8 seed, hopes to advance to the NCAA Championship Finals (May 23-28, Hutchinson, Kan.) for the first time since 2002.
Edwards acknowledges the regional field’s strength but he’s not awed by it. “All the fields are fairly well balanced and all are tough,” he said. “It wouldn’t really matter that much where we played; if we play well we’ll make it, if we don’t we won’t. It’s the same at all the sites.”
Added Oraee: “It’s supposed to be a random draw and realistically it would be hard to find a regional where you would be favored. Alabama and Texas are great. We’ve played against Pac-12 schools that are great. We’ll go play our game and see how it works out.”
With eight tournament finishes of fourth-place or better, Edwards says, “We’ve definitely had a good season so far. But we’ve got a chance to make it a special season. Anytime you make the NCAA Tournament, it’s a good season. Specifically, from how the team developed it’s been a lot of fun seeing the guys do that. Early in the year you had a lot of freshmen and some guys coming into new roles on the team. That was really neat to see how guys improved and played together throughout the year.”
The Buffs took it easy last week and concentrated on academics (semester finals). But Edwards believes they generated enough momentum in the previous week’s Pac-12 Championships to send them south with some zip in their steps and swings. After two disenchanting rounds in Pac-12 play, the Buffs regrouped and rose from 10th to a fourth-place finish. It was CU’s best finish in a conference tournament since a second-place effort in the 2009 Big 12 tourney.
Edwards was elated. “We played pretty poorly in the first two rounds,” he said. “Our guys really wanted to go out in the third and fourth rounds and prove themselves, which everybody has done. It really shows the character of the whole group.”
The final two rounds, he said, were two of the best his teams have had since he’s been at CU, with the “third round one of the best if not the best . . . we were way ahead of everybody else; it was not even close.” The Buffs’ total over the final 36 holes was second only to Washington, which finished second behind Stanford. California was third, CU fourth.
“I think (momentum) always carries over,” Edwards said. “The cool thing about it is you played so bad, then as a team played so well the next day. I think Yannik shot an 82 in his second round, then came back and shot the low round of the day. He was the only one in the 60s (a three-under-par 69) in the whole tournament that day. I know that gave him confidence and I could tell everyone was more confident. It’s been building throughout the year; we’re more confident as a group. And there’s no substitute for confidence. That’s the biggest thing.”
Oraee tied for 12th place in the Pac-12 tourney, completing his four rounds at 72, 74, 74, 73 – a five-over 293 that gave a CU golfer the best individual finish in a conference meet in five seasons. Edwards said Oraee “has really blossomed, grown, and his game’s improved as well. It’s all gone kind of hand-in-hand for him. He’s a good student, just a very dedicated guy in general and a very well rounded guy – but all of our guys are.
“We want guys who are interested in different things, focused on school, golf, and socially to be able to enjoy themselves as well and who communicate with each other. David is a lot that way; he’s a guy who doesn’t have a lot of idle time. He’s always doing something; he has to have something to occupy his time.”
Oraee, who was All-Colorado and the 5A Front Range Player of the Year as a senior at Greeley West, said his game has improved as the season has progressed: “The last month and a half, I’ve been hitting it pretty good but not scoring . . . I think it’s a matter of knowing when to score, when to lay back and take par. I feel good playing now.”
He attributes most of that to “being patient . . . golf is an up-and-down game. I knew I was doing the right things, had the right components. But you have to stay patient and get in a groove. In golf, that’s the biggest thing you can do.”
It’s what the Buffs are hopeful of doing this week at Auburn. While proud of their comeback and ascent in the Pac-12 event, Edwards, Oraee & Co. know that a bad round in the NCAA Regionals most likely will prevent them from advancing.
“We’ve had some competitive teams and had one individual (Derek Tolan) make it to the finals in 2008,” Edwards said. “But we still haven’t played that consistently. We’ve just kind of played OK. You do that and you usually don’t advance. We’ve beat some good teams in the tournament, we just haven’t beat enough of them.
“In ’09 we had one bad round and that probably cost us. Two decent ones and one bad one and you’re on the outside looking in. We were right there in every one of those years – those four other times – and going into the last round we had a shot. I’m hopeful this year that everything comes together.”