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After finishing up play at the Darius Rucker Intercollegiate last March, South Carolina senior Ana Pelaez boarded a plane to Malaga, Spain. It was the Gamecocks’ spring break, so head coach Kalen Anderson gave Pelaez the go-ahead to head home for some time with her instructors and family.
While Pelaez was away, the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in the U.S. with full force. With rumors of an international travel ban into the U.S. from Europe becoming reality, Anderson phoned Pelaez and told her she better hop on a plane as soon as possible or risk not hitting another college-golf shot ever. At that point, South Carolina’s spring season had been postponed, yet the SEC Championships and NCAA postseason remained on the schedule.
“I told myself if this is the last time I’m going to play with my team, then I’m going to come back and try it,” said Pelaez, who quickly boarded a flight to Columbia, first connecting in Miami.
“And as soon as I landed, they canceled everything.”
So, Pelaez got right back on a plane, only not to school but back home. She would spend almost 10 months there.
While Pelaez had initially planned to return for the U.S. Women’s Amateur in August and then head back to campus, travel restrictions and the uncertainty of the Gamecocks’ fall schedule ultimately quashed those plans. Pelaez didn’t want to get on a plane (again) only to come right back (again).
“I think she had a little PTSD from everything that happened,” Anderson said.
So, Pelaez stayed in Spain, where she practiced every day and stayed competitively sharp. She notched a couple of top-3s during the summer and then represented Spain in the European Ladies’ Team Championship. Also, after deciding not to return to campus in the fall, she teed it up in a few pro events, posting a pair of top-3s in those, before winning the Copa Andalucia last month.
“I had a really good season back home,” Pelaez said. “But following my team [during the fall] on Golfstat, feeling kind of jealous like I wanted to be there with them, I was ready to come back.”
Her team was excited to have her. Pelaez arrived back in Columbia for her final semester in late January. She was greeted by several new faces, including All-American transfer Pimnipa Panthong and three freshmen.
“I felt like a freshman again, not gonna lie,” Pelaez said. “There were so many new people. I was like, ‘Are you guys the freshmen or am I the freshman?’”
Added Anderson: “Ana’s got such great energy, so upbeat, so positive – we talked a lot when she was gone, but you just don’t get all that through FaceTime. It’s great to have all that back.”
South Carolina arguably has a much better player back, as well. When Pelaez first flew to Spain last March she was ranked outside of the top 150 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking. She is now No. 25 and has received an invite to play in the Augusta National Women’s Amateur this April.
“She’s a better and mature version of herself,” Anderson said. “She’s looks really, really good and confident in herself.”
Pelaez might’ve tied for third in qualifying for the Moon Golf Invitational, the team’s spring opener held last Sunday-Tuesday in Melbourne, Florida, but she came alive in the tournament. She fired all three rounds under par, including a bogey-free 5-under 67 in the second round. She ended up finishing the same (T-3) as she did in her qualifier, yet this time it was against 17 of the top women’s teams in the country.
South Carolina won the event at 24 under, six shots clear of LSU. Virginia, Florida State and Auburn rounded out the top five. Super sophomore Pauline Roussin-Bouchard shot 13 under and took the individual title by four shots – and she didn’t even count for the Gamecocks the final day. That’s how deep and talented this South Carolina squad is.
And they are even better with Pelaez back in the fold.
A new kind of shotgun start
Florida head coach J.C. Deacon gets an A-plus for creativity.
With help from his tournament committee members, Vanderbilt’s Scott Limbaugh and North Florida’s Scott Schroeder, Deacon used a unique kind of shotgun-start format for last weekend’s Gator Invitational.
With inclement weather expected later in the weekend, the 21-team field had to try and squeeze 54 holes into two days. And with the Gators’ home course, Mark Bostick Golf Course in Gainesville, featuring limited range space, there was no way a typical shotgun start, where all players start at the same time off different holes (and warm up simultaneously), would work.
So, Deacon and his fellow coaches decided on a hybrid, combining elements of a shotgun start with that of traditional tee times. Starting with Friday’s first round, the 120 players went off in foursomes off of six different holes beginning at 8 a.m. On each of the six holes, there were five sets of tee times, running until 8:40 a.m. Players starting off Nos. 1, 4 and 7 warmed up on the front part of the range while those off Nos. 10, 13 and 16 hit balls on the back of the range, and no player had more than a minute or so walk to his starting tee.
The same was done for Friday afternoon’s second round and Saturday’s final round. Despite a three-hour rain delay on Saturday, the tournament was completed by Saturday evening, before the weather really worsened on Sunday.
“You couldn’t do this kind of start on many golf courses, but our course was built for it,” Deacon said. “It turned out to be perfect, a no-brainer. I probably owe those boys [Limbaugh and Schroeder] a couple of beers because I wore them out a little bit.”
The Gators wore out their competition on the course, too, winning their home event for the second straight year. Florida finished at 29 under, five shots ahead of Auburn and Georgia, and now has won two straight events to open the spring. Sophomore Yuxin Lin, who transferred to Florida from USC during winter break, led the Gators with a T-6 finish.
“It feels like we’re on to something,” said Deacon, who then reflected back on the fall, when his team finished 10th or worse in two of their three SEC-only events. “I remember sitting in the van after finishing 10th at the Jerry Pate and before we pulled out of the parking lot at Old Overton we had a chat. … I basically told the boys, ‘All of us have to get to work. We have not earned the right to take a couple of months off here and put our feet up.’ And everyone did that.
“This [start] was earned in November and December.”
College Golf Talk
Steve Burkowski and Brentley Romine catch up with Florida head coach J.C. Deacon following the Gators’ win at the Gator Invitational. Plus, the guys discuss how deep the women’s SEC is and predict which players could be filling out the U.S. Walker Cup team.
No Fitzy and Power, no problem for Wake
With arguably its two best players sitting out after a grueling weekend at the Jones Cup, Wake Forest was far from full strength when it headed to Kiawah last Sunday to tee it up in its third event of the spring.
The good news for the Demon Deacons is that their full strength can hang with most teams, and they proved it Tuesday at Oak Point Golf Club by shooting 37 under and winning the Kiawah Invitational by nine shots over Clemson.
“What a great team win for our guys,” Wake Forest head coach Jerry Haas said. “I told somebody last week that we are an explosive bunch with a long way to go, but when we get it going, we make a lot of birdies. That is exactly what we did this week. … They want to be the best team in the country, and I believe that will happen.”
Even with likely Walker Cuppers Alex Fitzpatrick and Mark Power not in the lineup, Wake set a program record with its first-round, 21-under 267. Freshman Michael Brennan, now the new favorite for the Phil Mickelson Award, shot 16 under to win his first college title by five shots over teammate Eric Bae and East Tennessee State’s Archie Davies.
The Demon Deacons have now opened the spring with finishes of T-1 (playoff loss), second and first.
PGA Tour University update
The was no movement in the top 10 this week, though that should change by next week as the college golf calendar really ramps up. Auburn’s Andrew Kozan was the big mover this week, co-medaling at the Gator Invitational to improve 58 spots to No. 49. Also, keep an eye on Minnesota’s Angus Flanagan (35) and San Francisco’s Tim Widing (20), who are both teeing it up at the Genesis Invitational this week.
- 1. John Pak, Florida State
- 2. Chun An Yu, Arizona State
- 3. Austin Eckroat, Oklahoma State
- 4. Davis Thompson, Georgia
- 5. Sandy Scott, Texas Tech
- 6. Quade Cummins, Oklahoma
- 7. Garett Reband, Oklahoma
- 8. McClure Meissner, SMU
- 9. Trevor Werbylo, Arizona
- 10. Hunter Eichhorn, Marquette
- 11. Kyle Hogan, Texas Tech
- 12. Jovan Rebula, Auburn
- 13. Devon Bling, UCLA
- 14. Adrien Pendaries, Duke
- 15. Cooper Dossey, Baylor
For full ranking, click here.