Liberty senior Gabe Lench has experienced plenty of success during his four seasons with the men’s golf program, from tournament victories to conference titles and NCAA regional appearances.
The one achievement missing from his resume was competing in the NCAA national championship. Lench thought he and the Flames had the talent the past two years to play on the national stage, which makes the appearance this season at The Blessings Golf Club in Fayetteville, Arkansas, that much sweeter.
“To be honest, it’s about time,” Lench said earlier this week. “We have a very, very strong team, had a very strong team the last three years, and I feel like it was destined to happen.”
Liberty finished fifth in the Athens Regional to lock up the program’s second berth into the NCAA national championship. The Flames open the tournament at 8:45 a.m. Friday in the opening round at the challenging 7,550-yard course. They tee off from No. 10 with Baylor and Illinois.
Defending national champion Oklahoma State, with senior and Forest native Zach Bauchou, tees off at 1:10 p.m. from No. 10.
The 30-team field will compete in three rounds of stroke play, and the top 15 teams will advance to a fourth round of stroke play. The top eight teams then advance to match play, and the national champion will be determined May 29.
“I love a course that can kick you in the butt. We all do,” Lench said. “We love the challenge.”
The layout at The Blessings is the longest course the Flames will play this season. The golf club hosted the women’s Division I tournament that concluded Wednesday evening with Duke defeating Wake Forest to win the national title.
The Blue Devils shot 14 over in stroke play, including 12 over in the final stroke-play round, and were in second place heading into match play.
Texas, Duke and Southern Cal were the only three teams to post rounds under par, and four players shot under par in the tournament. Virginia Tech’s Amanda Hollandsworth shot even par to finish in fifth.
“I’ve actually had some friends that played there during the women’s stroke play, and they said the course is as hard as it seems,” Lench said. “That’s one of our strong points on our team is driving.”
The Flames have performed well on longer courses this season, with finishes of eighth or better when the venue is longer than 7,200 yards.
In addition to the fifth-place finish at the Athens Regional, Liberty won at the Intercollegiate at The Grove, finished second at the Grandover Collegiate, third at the General Hackler Championship and eighth at the Shoal Creek Invitational.
A key to the success on longer courses is the team’s driving accuracy. The Flames rank fourth in the nation in par-3 scoring, 40th in birdies and 45th in pars per round.
“The biggest thing is just finding the fairway, finding the greens and making as many pars as possible,” junior Ervin Chang said, “and getting ourselves in good positions, and when the birdies come, they’ll come to us.”
The Blessings is rated as one of the most difficult golf courses with a course rating of 80.9 and slope of 155 of the longest tees, according to Golfweek.
Several greens feature severe drop-offs that make approach shots critical to low scores, and drives off the tee will be tested with high fescue that will make landing the fairway paramount to setting up quality approach shots.
“We don’t need to shoot under par. We just need to be patient on the golf course and just do the best we can,” coach Jeff Thomas said. “It’s all right to make bogeys; as long as those bogeys don’t turn into big numbers, we’re OK.”
Thomas added large misses resulting in double- or triple-bogeys will hurt the Flames during the tournament, and he made sure his players focused on approach shots into the right part of the green during Thursday’s practice round.
“There’s a few holes that are a little shorter out there, but those are the holes that are tighter and can get you in trouble fast,” Thomas said. “We just need to make sure that we stay in our routine and stay focused on every tee ball, because if you don’t, that’s when we’re going to get in trouble.”