PINEHURST, N.C. (April 21, 2015) – The ETSU men’s golf team outlasted UNC Greensboro to win its league-best 18th Southern Conference Championship as the 40th-ranked Buccaneers saw their six-shot lead evaporate before edging out the Spartans in a playoff on Tuesday afternoon at Pinehurst No. 9.
The Buccaneers, who claimed their 23rd conference championship in program history, captured their first conference crown since winning the Atlantic Sun title in 2010 after finishing with a team score of 2-under-par 862 (286-289-287). In addition, ETSU – who won the SoCon title in its last year in the conference in 2005 – captured the win in its first year back this season.
“There were a lot of twists and turns today, but we hung in there to battle for the team win,” said head coach Fred Warren, who earned his 13th SoCon title on Tuesday. “Greensboro played a great round today, but we did just enough to come away with the win. Afterwards, I told the guys I could see ways that we could’ve won by more and there were scenarios where UNCG could’ve won. Overall, we did a great job in the playoff and I am glad we got the victory.”
After holding the outright lead for the first two rounds, ETSU took a six-stroke lead into Tuesday’s final round, but the Spartans charged out of the gates and forced a playoff after shooting a 7-under 281, while the Bucs totaled a 1-under 287 to both finish at 862 for the championship.
The team lead shared hands numerous times down the stretch as senior Rhys Pugh (Pontypridd, Wales) – who shot a 3-under on the back nine on Tuesday – gave ETSU a huge lift after registering an eagle on the par-5, 530-yard 15th and followed that up with a birdie on the par-4, 16th. Meanwhile, the Spartans jumped back ahead after Gudmundur Kristjansson (Reykjavik, Iceland) – who totaled three straight birdies to start the back nine – recorded back-to-back double bogeys on No. 13 and 14 before recording his sixth birdie of the round on the par-4, 383-yard 16th.
“I was playing in a good group today, but I didn’t start well until making the eagle and birdie on the back nine,” said Pugh. “I had a good drive on No. 15 and hit a four iron four feet away from the hole for the three, while I hit a wedge on the next hole and tapped in for birdie. We played well all week and it feels good to get win. It’s a great feeling to win in my final year and we are looking forward to playing in another regional.”
From there, it came down to Adrian Meronk (Wroclaw, Poland) and UNCG’s Jake McGlone as they were the last group on the course in regulation. McGlone rolled in a tough 25-foot putt to save par on No. 18 after placing his approach in the pine straw next to the cart path, putting all the pressure on Meronk. Meronk – who birdied three of his first four holes on the back nine – knocked down his 5-footer for a par of his own, sending the teams to a sudden-death playoff on hole 18.
The two teams sent their five golfers back to the 18th tee box to start the playoff. ETSU’s first three golfers – Mateusz Gradecki (Oborniki Śląskie, Poland), Tom Heggarty (Cheshire, England) and Meronk – all recorded pars, along with the UNCG’s Roy Dixon and Josh Stockwell; forcing the final group to determine the champion.
In the next group, Pugh and Kristjansson also parred the final hole – with Kristjansson’s 40-foot birdie putt lipping out – leaving UNCG with a pair of must-have par putts after Taylor Coalson’s approach found water. Luke Haithcock’s mid-range attempt missed by inches, clinching the title for ETSU.
“I am happy we hung on for the team win,” said Kristjansson. “It was nice to be in the second group of the playoff as Tom, Adrian and Mateusz made it easy for us after making pars. I missed the fairway on my drive but hit my second shot 30-35 feet away from the pin before lipping my birdie attempt. After making my par putt, it put pressure on UNCG and we were able to hold on. I am proud of Adrian for the way he played and I wish I could’ve played better. But we ended up getting the team win and everyone is happy.”
The individual race also saw a dramatic finish, as Meronk, playing the 18th hole for a third straight time, battled it out with Western Carolina’s J.T. Poston for medalist honors. Meronk’s long birdie putt came up short before he closed out a par, and Poston sank a birdie from nearly the same location as McGlone’s long make in regulation to lock up his second straight SoCon title.
Poston and Meronk each finished the tournament at 9-under 207, with Poston capping his tournament with a 1-under 71 after opening with a 6-under 66 and a 2-under 70. Meronk was the model of consistency, shooting 3-under 69 in all three rounds.
“It feels good to get the team win,” said Meronk, who was named to the Palmer Cup late last week. “In regulation, I knew I had to make par after UNCG made a 25-foot putt for par. I made my 6-foot putt to force the playoff, so it was exciting. We played well in the playoff and I am glad everyone stepped up for us. Obviously, I wanted to win the individual championship, but I am happy with my game and the way I played this week.”
Along with Meronk finishing with his 9-under-par 207, Gradecki tied for fifth at 1-under-par 215 (68-73-74), while Kristjansson tied for 15th and Pugh finished in 17th. Kristjansson ended with a 54-hole total of 5-over-par 221 (74-74-73) and Pugh 6-over 222 (75-76-71).
The league’s eight head coaches voted on all-conference awards at the tournament, with Meronk earning SoCon Player of the Year honors. Coach Warren was named SoCon Coach of the Year, while Chattanooga’s Andrew Weathers was named Freshman of the Year.
Meronk and Chris Hickman (Centreville, Md.), Furman’s Wehman Hopke and Bryce Howell, Mercer’s Rule and Emmanuel Kountakis, UNCG’s Dixon, Chattanooga’s Liam Johnston, Western Carolina’s Poston, and Wofford’s Jeremy Grab were named to the all-conference team.
Cayman Ratliff (Kingsport, Tenn.), UTC’s Weathers, UNCG’s Stockwell, Mercer’s Jerry Ren and Wofford’s Evan Grenus earned all-freshman honors.
The Bucs will now make their 24th appearance in the NCAA Regional after earning the league’s automatic berth. The Golf Channel will announce the regionals on Monday, May 4 at 10 a.m.
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