How ‘underrated’ BYU became consistent presence at NCAA golf championships

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PROVO — As a leader on the No. 43-ranked men’s golf program in the country, Zac Jones knows that BYU isn’t supposed to tee off this week at the NCAA golf championships at Grayhawk Country Club in Scottsdale, California.

And that’s just fine by him.

The Cougars will tee it up on Thursday — a day before the rest of the field, as they look to play Sunday’s third round instead of a practice round due to the school’s long-established religious policies — and will open the NCAA championships for the fourth time in the past five seasons (not counting the 2020 season that was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic) with a bit of a chip on their shoulders after a second-place finish at the NCAA’s Morgan Hill Regional in the Bay Area.

Not bad for a bunch of boys from Utah.

“To have a cold weather golf school coming out of Utah, it’s really cool that we have this consistent track record of making the national championship and being one of those teams that make the top-30 to go play in the national championship,” said Jones, the reigning Utah amateur champion who prepped at Lone Peak. “I think it says a lot of our coaches, of how we handle ourselves and how we are able to practice regularly in Utah, playing the tournament schedule in the winter.

“We feel like we’re underrated, and we feel like if we’re playing our best golf,” he added, “we can hang with anyone in the country.”

The top 15 teams after three days of stroke play (54 holes) will advance to Monday’s final round, which will also include the top nine individuals not on qualifying teams. Monday’s finish will then determine the individual champion and top eight teams that will compete in match play for the team title next Tuesday and Wednesday.

Texas won the title last year over former two-time Utah amateur champion Preston Summerhays and Arizona State.

The Cougars have finished the season at the NCAA championships every year but two since 2017, with one of those missed seasons coming during the canceled 2019-20 spring campaign that affected all sports. The other was 2021, when Carson Lundell represented BYU to a 33rd place finish at the national championship.

The “cold-weather school” from Utah also has a religious exemption that allows the Cougars to not compete on Sunday, which the NCAA first allowed with the BYU women’s golf team in 2016, giving the players a chance to play the third round on Thursday with the same pins, tee boxes and everything save for the weather.

Some other coaches have complained that gives BYU an unfair advantage, with golf often dependent on wind and other weather-related factors. But as the Cougars haven’t finished inside the top-20 just once in nearly 20 years, those complaints have quieted as well.

Could this year’s team break the streak and make the cut to match-play at Grayhawk Country Club, where wind, heat and elevation combine to play a fast course the likes of which BYU golfers are more accustomed? The Cougars finished just 21st a year ago, but return almost every golfer from that team and added Jones to the consistent scoring group.

There’s no doubt they’ve improved, either, from a West Coast Conference championship to a second-place finish at regionals led by Jones’ T4 and top-20 finishes from Lundell, Max Brenchley and fifth-year senior David Timmins. Even No. 5 scorer Tyson Shelley, the sophomore from Skyline High, proved pivotal in the team success by carding a bogey-free 68 in the third round to give BYU the only under-par round in the finale.

Jones, for his part, admits he watch the whole thing from via the constantly updated leaderboard while he was on the course at The Institute Golf Club.

“I like to watch the leaderboard, and I was looking at the leaderboard all morning,” he said. “Every birdie the guy made, I was fist pumping. Everybody was playing well.

“Tyson had a lot of pressure on him that last day, and there was a lot of pressure to step up when the team needs you,” Jones added. “That’s really cool for a kid as young as that to step up on a big stage like that. It says a lot about this and his character, what he can do in the national championship.”

Jones, along with teammates Shelley, Elijah Turner, Keanu Akina and Brock Goyen, will soon report to the final qualifying stage for the 123rd U.S. Open at Los Angeles Country Club — a feat made possibly historic if you add recently graduated BYU golfer and Draper resident Rhett Rasmussen, who shot 65 at a qualifying stage in Mesquite, Nevada, to also advance from among the 9,693 players at 109 qualifying sites.

On the 50th anniversary of Johnny Miller’s U.S. Open victory, BYU golf could add a storied chapter to the annals of the program’s record book. But first, all eyes are on Grayhawk, where a course that is categorized as “really firm, really hot and really dry” awaits Jones and the Cougars.

“The ball is going to go really far,” he added. “It’s going to be a lot of course management, a lot of strategy, and we have the coaches that we help us strategize through that golf course.

“I think Grayhawk is good for us. The elevation is good for us, the grasses are the same. Greens will be firm and fast, but that’s not something that is too surprise to us.”

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