The Michigan men’s golf team traveled to Rio Grande, Puerto Rico on Sunday to compete in the Puerto Rico Classic — a three-day stroke-play event played at the River Course at Rio Mar Country Club. To put it simply: things did not go as planned.
The field was packed with formidable opponents. Eight of the 15 teams in attendance were ranked in Golfweek’s top 50 — three were in the top 10, including No. 1 Texas. It was most likely the toughest field Michigan will face all season.
But Michigan coach Chris Whitten was confident in his team’s play heading into Sunday’s first round.
“We’ve gone to Puerto Rico for several years in a row,” Whitten said. “We were excited to go down and play a course that we were familiar with.”
But on day one, the Wolverines struggled, shooting an 18-over-par team total of 306, 30 strokes behind eventual champion Alabama. Michigan finished the day tied for 14th along with East Tennessee State. Senior Matt Thompson fired a team-best, one-under-par 71, while juniors Miguel Echavarria and Matt Alessi shot rounds of 77 and 78, respectively. Freshman Noori Hyun rounded out Michigan’s top four with an 80.
“We just came out flat (on Sunday), and probably a little bit tentative,” Whitten said. “There’s no particular reason for it.”
Monday’s second round wasn’t any better. The Wolverines shot a lethargic 309, with their best scores again coming from Thompson and Echavarria with matching 76s. Thompson, in particular, was dissatisfied with his performance.
“I was a little disappointed,” Thompson said. “I thought I was playing a lot better than I shot.”
Day three was a bit more positive for Michigan, as it finished off the tournament with a 12-over-par total of 300.
“I think the guys felt more comfortable each day, and we played a better round (on Tuesday),” Whitten said. “We had a couple guys make some really nice progress throughout the week.”
Echavarria finished his week with a solid one-over-par 73, while Hyun carded a 71, his first-ever collegiate round under par.
“(Hyun’s) ball-striking has really been good for a long time now,” Whitten said. “I think he needed to get his short game matching where his long game was. His chip shots, pitch shots and putting were all a lot better (on Tuesday).”
Thompson spoke highly of the freshman.
“This (tournament) will definitely help his confidence,” Thompson said. “That’s huge for him, it being his first year. Hopefully he can carry that to next week.”
And even though it’s only his first season at the helm, Whitten is wise enough not to panic, even when his team leaders, Thompson and junior Jack Schultz, are struggling. Schultz had a particularly frustrating performance — he didn’t break 80 all week — but Whitten’s confidence is unwavering.
“This week was a strange one for Jack,” Whitten said. “It doesn’t show who he is at all. I’m sure he’ll be able to forget it. He’ll move on and play well again right away. It won’t be a problem.”
In the end, the Alabama squad proved to be too dominant for the rest of the field. The Crimson Tide finished at an astounding 30-under-par three-day total. Its nearest competitor, Clemson, was 18 strokes behind at 12-under.
Alabama’s Justin Thomas won the individual trophy with a 10-under-par total, while Michigan’s leader, Thompson, finished tied for 39th place with a six-over-par total.
The Wolverines saw a couple of familiar faces in Puerto Rico as well, including former coach Andrew Sapp, now the head coach at North Carolina, and former Wolverine Joey Garber, who transferred to Georgia following his freshman season. Sapp’s Tar Heels finished in a tie for 13th in the team standings with Michigan, while Garber finished tied for 19th as an individual shooting an even-par total for the three-day event.
Michigan travels to Los Angeles next week for the North Ranch Collegiate at North Ranch Country Club. The two-day event starts on Monday.