Kevin Penner hasn’t forgotten his only NCAA Golf Championship experience.
It came in 2010, and things didn’t go well for Penner, then a freshman, or UNLV. Penner had a first-round 5-over-par 77, and the Rebels didn’t make the cut for the match-play portion of the tournament and finished tied for 21st.
Three years later, Penner and the Rebels are back and determined to make a better showing when play begins Tuesday at the Capital City Club in the Atlanta suburb of Milton, Ga.
“It’s been frustrating making it only once,” said Penner, a 22-year-old senior from Sammamish, Wash. “But now that we’re back, we need to take advantage of the opportunity.”
As team captain, Penner knows how he fares will influence his teammates’ performance. So shooting a 77 Tuesday is not in his plans.
“That first round is important,” said Penner, who recovered from the 77 in 2010 with rounds of 72 and 71 to finish tied for 64th individually. “I have to just stay patient and relaxed and get off to a good start.
“I know when I don’t play well it seems to negatively impact the team. But I’ve worked hard on my game, and I know I’m capable of doing good things.”
Penner has done some good things this year. He won two titles in the fall — the All-America Golf Classic in November and the Nevada Open in December, where he beat several professionals at the three-day event in Mesquite.
But his fall success didn’t carry over to the spring. He struggled with his tempo and consistency. He was having trouble just breaking par. So he took a week off last month and went home to work with his swing coach of eight years, Scott Williams.
“There were some little flaws, and Scott immediately saw them,” Penner said. “When I came back, I started hitting the ball better, and I started putting up better scores.”
UNLV coach Dwaine Knight said he’s grateful to Williams.
“Sometimes you see things, but you’re not sure how to correct them, and sometimes you don’t see things at all,” Knight said. “Kevin trusts Scott, and obviously Scott knows his game, because when Kevin came back for conference, he was the old Kevin Penner.”
Penner dominated the Mountain West championship in Tucson, Ariz., winning medalist honors with a three-day score of 7-under 206 and leading UNLV to a second-place tie.
“That gave me a lot of confidence,” Penner said. “It was all about just getting me back to my natural swing. I had fallen into some old bad habits. But now I’m back playing like I can.”
For the most part. Penner didn’t break par at the NCAA Regionals in Columbus, Ohio, but his scores of 75-74-74—223 were more about tough luck on the greens than poor play.
“I actually hit the ball well at regionals,” Penner said. “I just didn’t putt well.”
Knight said he thinks Penner’s putter will heat up in Atlanta, and as long as his ball striking holds up, he foresees a good tournament for his senior. When UNLV played Capital City’s Crabapple Course in September, Penner shot par 210 and tied for second in the three-round event.
“We’re obviously going to need Kevin to play well for us to have a chance,” Knight said. “But I just want him to go out, relax, have fun and be himself.”
That’s what Penner plans to do in his final tournament as an amateur. After that, he plans to turn pro next month.
“I’m very excited about my future,” said Penner, who is two classes from graduating with a degree in interdisciplinary studies and plans to finish over the summer. “But I’m focused on this last tournament and going out on top.”
Contact reporter Steve Carp at email@example.com or 702-387-2913. Follow him on Twitter: @stevecarprj.