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UNLV golf invitational attracts strong field

Dwaine Knight was willing to take a bold step and move off the traditional dates of UNLV’s annual men’s home golf tournament from the weekend to the beginning of the week.

Knight, the Rebels’ longtime coach, was looking to bring added exposure to the Southern Highlands Collegiate Masters by having it shown on national TV. That meant not competing with the pros for air time on Saturday and Sunday, so Knight was willing to leave the weekend and go to a Monday through Wednesday format.

But when The Golf Channel decided to pass, Knight was stuck with the dates. How it will impact attendance at Southern Highlands remains to be seen when play in the 54-hole event begins at 8 a.m. Monday.

The quality of the field wasn’t diminished with the change of date. Illinois, the No. 1 team in the nation, is in the 15-team field, and the defending champion Rebels will be paired with the Illini for the first round.

“We’ve been trying to get Illinois for a while,” Knight said. “They’ve got a really good program, and our guys always want to measure themselves against the best.”

UNLV, ranked No. 25 in the nation by Golfweek, will play seniors Carl Jonson, Kurt Kitayama and Nicholas Maruri, sophomore Taylor Montgomery and freshman John Oda this week. Oda has gotten off to a hot start in the spring season, having won the individual title at the Sea Best Invitational in Jacksonville, Fla., and finishing second at the John Burns Intercollegiate in Hawaii.

“He has a lot of maturity for a freshman,” Knight said. “He manages his game really well, and he doesn’t get rattled out there. He’s going to be a heck of a player for us.”

The Rebels have won their only home tournament 11 times since 1993. But this year’s field is exceptionally talented with 10 top-25 teams entered. No. 7 Texas, No. 10 Southern California, No. 11 UCLA, No. 13 Arizona State, No. 16 Alabama and Illinois are expected to contend for the title.

Knight said repeating will not be easy.

“We are going to have to play at a high level, higher than we have played so far this year, to compete because the field is so stacked,” he said. “But if we have patience and don’t get too uncomfortable and start pressing, then we should be in the mix and have a chance to win again.”

The fact that UNLV practices at Southern Highlands should help. But if the Rebels can’t keep the ball in the fairway and make putts, it won’t matter. The greens are always fast, and the course is in its usual immaculate shape.

“Obviously our guys are comfortable playing at Southern Highlands, but you still have to execute out there,” Knight said. “I don’t think playing early in the week as opposed to the weekend will make any difference. We’ve played early in the week before, so it won’t take us out of our routine.”

Knight said he’s hoping to get TV to cover the 2016 event.

“It would take the tournament to another level,” he said. “This is a nationals-quality tournament, and I think it would make it very attractive for television. We’ll continue to talk to them and hopefully next year we can be on TV.”

Live scoring will be available at Golfstat.com and UNLVrebels.com.

Contact reporter Steve Carp at scarp@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2913. Follow him on Twitter: @stevecarprj.

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