UNLV golf team embraces ‘toughness’ of past as it targets success in present

It’s not wise to live in the past. But it never hurts to remember it.

UNLV won its lone NCAA men’s golf championship in 1998, and from time to time, coach Dwaine Knight will bring that up with this year’s team. He likes to remind them of what happened and what is possible.

But to paraphrase Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino, Knight knows that Charley Hoffman, Bill Lunde and Jeremy Anderson will not be walking through the clubhouse door Tuesday when the NCAA Championship begins at the Capital City Club in the Atlanta suburb of Milton, Ga.

However, Knight hopes the toughness his team showed in Albuquerque, N.M., in ’98 will manifest itself in this year’s team, which is led by senior Kevin Penner and has endured a roller-coaster ride of a season to get to the championship for just the second time in seven years.

“I think we’ve come together as a group,” Knight said. “They’re real tight. They love to compete.”

UNLV has revamped its lineup over the past month as junior Nicholas Maruri has beaten out freshman Zane Thomas, and sophomores Kurt Kitayama and Carl Jonson have played well enough to overcome the departure of junior Blake Biddle. The team’s No. 2 player, Biddle asked for and received his release from the team late last month.

“They’ve shown to be a resilient bunch, one through five,” Knight said of his lineup, which advanced out of the Columbus (Ohio) Regional last week with a fourth-place finish. “I’m real proud of what this group has done.”

Jonson, who contracted mononucleosis last fall, has really picked up his game over the past month. He said he’s never been part of a team like this where everyone has each other’s back.

“Everyone’s pulling for each other,” he said. “We know a lot has gone on this semester, but we stuck together.”

Kitayama said: “We played well on that course in the fall, and I think we’re a much more confident team now than we were back in September.”

UNLV’s lineup will consist of Penner, Jonson, Kitayama, freshman AJ McInerney and Maruri. Defending champion Texas is in the 30-team field, but California, the nation’s top team and the winner of last week’s Pullman (Wash.) Regional, will be the team to beat.

However, the Golden Bears are not invincible. UNLV was able to defeat Cal last month at the ASU Thunderbird Invitational, and Knight said his players won’t be intimidated if they were to hook up with Cal later in the week during match play.

“We would love that opportunity,” Knight said. “They’re such a great team. But our guys know that they can play with them.”

Penner is the lone UNLV player with NCAA Championship experience. The Rebels’ captain said this week is about going out and competing.

“Everyone’s worked really hard and we’re not going to be satisfied just being here,” Penner said. “The other time I was here, we seemed glad just to make it and we didn’t do well (UNLV finished tied for 21st and missed the cut). We want to try and win it.”

And that’s why Knight brings up 1998.

“That team had the toughness to finish,” he said. “We were even with Clemson with three holes to play, and they found a way to get the ball in the hole. This group has a lot of that toughness. They’re grinders and they have the toughness to finish. And with the new format, you’re going to have to be tough mentally and physically to win.”

In 2009, the NCAA changed the format from four rounds of stroke play to three rounds of stroke play followed by three days of match play to determine the national champion. The 30-team field will cut down to eight on Thursday following the final round of stroke play. The head-to-head portion of the championship begins Friday. Knight wants his players to approach the week as two separate tournaments.

“We know it’s going to take three good rounds to advance,” Knight said. “So that’s our focus. Let’s get to match play and see what happens from there.”

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

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