As his team left the course at Turtle Bay Resort on Friday, UNLV men’s golf coach Dwaine Knight knew where the Rebels stood in terms of the big picture — a serious contender for the NCAA championship.
What he realized is that the Rebels, talented as they might be, have a lot of work to do in the coming weeks. Their sixth-place finish at the John Burns Intercollegiate in Kahuku, Hawaii, was not what Knight expected.
“Obviously, we were disappointed with the performance,” Knight said. “We expected to compete better than we did, and we’ve got to get better.”
Knight didn’t have any delusions of grandeur when it came to catching California, the nation’s No. 1 team, which ran away and hid from the rest of the 15-team field in winning by 27 strokes. But he thought his team would be more competitive and perhaps finish in the top three, something Mountain West rival New Mexico accomplished by finishing second.
At one point, UNLV was in third place. But the Rebels were unable to maintain their quality play down the stretch and faded to 25-over 889, 39 strokes behind first-place Cal.
“We were up there but we didn’t finish,” Knight said. “The key is just finding the consistency throughout our lineup.”
When a team’s best player struggles, it’s tough to earn a top-three finish. UNLV senior Kevin Penner, who had an outstanding fall season, was unable to carry that momentum into the spring opener as he struggled early and had an 8-over-par 224 over 54 holes to finish tied for 20th among individuals.
“Kevin had played so well during the fall, he was bound to have a tough tournament,” Knight said. “Unfortunately, it was this one. But hopefully, he’ll put it behind him, and I expect him to bounce back.”
Junior Blake Biddle had the Rebels’ best performance in Hawaii, finishing tied for 14th after posting a 6-over 222. Freshman AJ McInerney had an opening-round 1-over 73 but couldn’t improve on that score and finished tied for 17th at 7-over 223.
Perhaps most encouraging was sophomore Carl Jonson’s final-round 1-under 71 after posting scores of 79 and 78 the first two rounds.
“That was good to see Carl bounce back after he struggled in the wind and the rain early,” Knight said.
The Rebels, who are ranked 40th nationally by Golfweek, will host the Southern Highlands Collegiate Masters on March 8-10 as they attempt to defend their title. They’ll get another shot at Cal and several of the nation’s top teams, including No. 2 Texas, No. 4 New Mexico, No. 5 Alabama, No. 6 UCLA, No. 7 Florida, No. 8 Southern California, No. 9 Duke, No. 10 Georgia Tech and No. 11 Georgia.
The 54-hole event at Southern Highlands Golf Club is free to the public.
“It’s like a national championship field,” Knight said. “Even though we’re at home, we’re going to be tested for sure, and we need to be ready to play.”
Knight said he might shake things up with his starting five. The team plays qualifying matches before every tournament to determine the lineup for that week’s event, and while Penner and Biddle are virtual locks, the other three spots could be up for grabs.
“Everything is open,” Knight said. “This qualifying is critical for our guys. But I expect us to play better now that we have a tournament under our belts.
“We’re playing at home where we’re comfortable, and I think we’ll rise to the challenge.”
Contact reporter Steve Carp at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2913. Follow him on Twitter: @stevecarprj.