Sep 15, 2009

Flames golf returns to links with season opening Manor Intercollegiate

by Jake Petersen

After a long offseason beating golf balls in the grueling summer heat and early morning workouts, the Liberty Flames men’s golf team is looking to put all that practice and hard work to the test this season and improve upon last spring’s solid performance.

The 2009 spring season was a very successful one for the Flames, as newcomers Tobias Pettersson and Robert Karlsson helped Liberty place in the top five in five tournaments, including a win at the First Market Bank Intercollegiate and a second place finish in the Big South Championship.

Pettersson, who had a strong fall (2008) campaign and convinced his Swedish buddy Karlsson to join him at Liberty, has since transferred to the University of Arkansas, leaving a huge gap to fill in the Flames lineup. The loss of Pettersson, coupled with the departures of Jay Calvo (graduation) and Nathan Schenz-Davis, will be a point of concern for the Flames this year, as only two starters return in Karlsson and junior Preston Dembowiak.

“It is obviously going to be a change not having Jay, Nate, and Tobias in the lineup for tournaments. Each was a good player and brought positives to the team,” head coach Jeff Thomas said.

“I do feel, however, we can improve on last year’s success and have a great season. We have some very talented players and I expect us to pick up where we left off last spring.”

One of the very talented players Thomas is talking about is Karlsson, who was ranked as high as No. 14 in the nation by GolfStat last year. This fall, Karlsson returns for his sophomore season as the Flames number one golfer after securing Big South Freshman of the Year honors last season, giving the Flames a threat at the top of their starting lineup. The Kalmar, Sweden native earned an at-large bid into the NCAA East Regional Tournament due to his stellar play over the course of his first collegiate season, becoming the first Flames golfer to ever accomplish that feat. Despite finishing in a tie for 45th, Karlsson took a lot from his experience playing against some of the big boys of college golf.

“There are a ton of good college golf-players in the United States, but unfortunately the individuals played with the teams that were far at the top of the tournament which meant that I did not play with a really good player (throughout the tournament),” Karlsson said.

“But I still saw them hit balls on the range and stuff and I realized that these players are not as good as I thought they were. I am not saying that I thought they were bad but the shots I saw them hit, I know that I can hit the same shots and I am not as far away from them as I thought.”

Following his performance at the East Regional, Karlsson returned home to Sweden and hit the driving range, looking to improve on some things that the 21-year-old needed to work on in order to take his game to the next level.

“I hit the ball very bad the last time of the spring and even during Regionals, but after my first meeting with my swing coach when I got back to Sweden, I started to hit the ball well again,” Karlsson said. “It is just small details every time something is wrong. Also, I really worked really hard on my wedges and putting because they are the difference between a top-10 or a win.”

“My goal for Robert is for him to become a better all-around player. He is working hard on his flexibility, strength and putting to make this a reality. This means he needs to improve his ball striking, chipping, putting, and distance. If he is able to improve his game the results will come with lower scores on the course,” Thomas said.

The practice paid off for Karlsson, who played his way into a PGA European Tour event, the SAS Masters, in late July. An opening round 77 would dash any dreams of making the cut, although Karlsson did rebound with an even par round of 73 in the second round, finishing at 4-over-par for the tournament.

“I missed the cut by two shots and I played far from perfect golf. I made a few mistakes the first round, which I expected because it was my biggest tournament in my career,” Karlsson said. “I think that if I really start to work seriously on my golf and have some luck on the way, I have a chance to be on that tour in the future. It is going to be really tough, and I definitely think that it will take a lot of effort from my side and I’ll probably have to sacrifice some other things in life too,” Karlsson said.

In addition to Karlsson, the other members of the Flames squad have been working on their game all summer, and Thomas says he sees promise amongst both his newcomers and returning players.

“I am very excited to have freshman Max McKay on our roster. He has qualified and played in the U.S. Junior Championship and U.S. Amateur Championship. He is a player who we recruited very hard and comes to Liberty with a successful junior career,” Thomas said.

“Along with Max, I would expect Andrew Nelson who is back from a year off after red-shirting last year to bring a lot of experience and leadership to our team. Stephen Dooley has been playing well this fall in practice, and we are excited to see what he can do in some early individual tournaments. He is a very talented player who could possibly fill a starting position. Finally, Sang Chun and Chris Watters are two players who have tournament experience at Liberty and are guys we are counting on to bring consistency to the team,” Thomas said.

The lone returning starter, Dembowiak, is expecting things to run as smoothly as they did last year for the Flames despite missing the core of last year’s lineup.

“If each guy focuses on fundamentals and discipline themselves to practice efficiently, we will be right there when the Big South Championship and NCAA Regionals comes around,” the junior said. “We have a great group of guys that gel very well. If we can carry that team unity throughout the year and continue to push one another, it will be exciting to see what’s in store for us.”

The Flames teed off on Monday in the Manor Intercollegiate hosted by Longwood University. Results were unavailable at press time.

Contact Jake Petersen at jtpetersen@liberty.edu.
 


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