The fact that college golf has a 10-week break between the fall and spring seasons makes for an interesting paradox -- just how much of what transpires in September, October and November affects a team's performance come April, May and June? Can programs that build momentum in the first half of the school year recapture the same spark in the second half?
Surely, coaches won't ever say they're disappointed with a victory in the fall, but it's a win in the spring, (and the later in the spring the better) that exists as the ultimate goal. "It's a shame, but people really don't remember much past what happens the last four days of the season," said one coach a few years back, after his team had a multiwin season but failed to claim the NCAA title. "But what am I suppose to tell my guys? Not try to win the other tournaments?"
Before you start dismissing the fall campaign as an appetizer to the main course served up in the spring, realize that the past three months serve as a pretty good barometer for things to come. So, with that in mind, we offer our midseason awards -- both as a review of the season to date and as a primer for what's to come when the collegiate players tee it up again in late January.
Midseason Players of the Year
Men: Pablo Martin, Oklahoma State
Detractors point to the fact that the sophomore from Malaga, Spain, played in only two stroke-play tournaments this fall. Still, they were arguably the two strongest events -- the Ping/Golfweek Preview and the Isleworth-UCF Collegiate Invitational -- and he won or shared medalist honors in both, making it hard to overlook Martin's solid fall season. His 69.5 stroke average ranks first in the nation, as does his 3.85 average on par 4s and his 5.50 subpar strokes per round.
Honorable mention: Matt Every, Florida
Women: Amanda Blumenherst, Duke
The freshman from Scottsdale, Ariz., won by 5 shots in her first college start (Mason Rudolph Women's Championship) and hasn't looked back, shooting par or better in 10 of 12 rounds en route to a 70.92 stroke average. In her four starts, she finished no worse than T-4. Blumenherst's smooth transition from the junior ranks to the college game helped the Blue Devils establish themselves as the team to beat in 2005-06.
Honorable mention: Ashley Knoll, Texas A&M
Midseason Coach of the Year
Men: Bruce Heppler, Georgia Tech
When you're trying to figure out how to keep your team ranked in the top 10 while replacing Nick Thompson and Chan Song, who both graduated last spring after All-American careers with the Yellow Jackets, you're bound to have some restless nights. That was the scenario facing Heppler, who wasn't without a few good sticks in Atlanta (among them, returning All-American Roberto Castro) but had to trust his less experienced players to step up and perform. So far so good, as junior Kevin Larsen has yet to finish out of the top 10 in four starts and freshmen Cameron Tringale and Taylor Hall each have stroke averages below 73.33. Along with solid play from Castro, Tech has a victory and four top-fives to its credit -- and Heppler can sleep well over the holidays.
Honorable mention: Chris Haack, Georgia
Women: Devon Brouse, Purdue
Asked whether he thought the Boilermakers surprised people with their four wins in five starts this fall, Brouse said anyone who follows college recruiting knew Purdue had talent coming with freshman Christel Boeljon (The Netherlands) and Maria Hernandez (Spain) now hitting the books in West Lafayette, Ind. That said, the man now in his eighth season at his alma mater finally has the depth to contend with the nation's elite, and he's more than taken advantage of it. Brouse's protests aside, the surprise tag is likely to remain, but another label has surely been put to rest: fluke.
Honorable mention: Kelley Hester, Arkansas
Most surprising player
Men: Dustin Johnson, Coastal Carolina
Though the 21-year-old earned Big South player of the year honors in 2004-05, there were those who were convinced Johnson's one-shot win at last May's NCAA East Regional was the work of a one-hit wonder. The junior, though, has done his part to silence those doubters with victories at the Coca-Cola Duke Classic and Landfall Tradition. He's now seen as a dark-horse candidate for national player of the year.
Honorable mention: Chris Barron, Austin Peay
Women: Marci Turner, Tennessee
After a solid freshman campaign, the 19-year-old from Tompkinsville, Ky., hasn't experienced anything close to a sophomore slump. Not only did she play well in the Lady Vols' home event -- second at the Mercedes-Benz -- but she had her first victory at the Cougar Classic and a T-4 at the Derby.
Honorable mention: Onnarin Sattayabanphot, Purdue
Most surprising team
Given impressive summer performances from returning starters Dillon Dougherty (runner-up at the U.S. Amateur) and Chris Wilson (runner-up at the Western Amateur), perhaps the Wildcats' three-shot victory at the Big Ten/Pac-10 Challenge and two other top-5 finishes were achievements people should have seen coming. Nevertheless, coach Pat Goss' squad opened some eyes after being unranked entering the fall and is in position to be a sleeper pick in post-season action next spring.
Honorable mention: Kentucky
Two years ago the Lady Commodores were SEC champs. Last year they took home just one top-five finish all season. Suffice it to say, just what to expect in 2005-06 was anyone's guess, but two third-place finishes for a squad that has no seniors and two juniors has coach Martha Freitag moving the program back in the right direction. Give extra credit for the spiffy Under Armour uniforms, complete with players' names and number on the back, that the team wears during the final round of tournaments.
Honorable mention: UNLV
Most disappointing player
Men: Nathan Smith, Duke
The senior, a two-time All-American and a qualifier for the 2004 U.S. Open, had only one finish better than a T-59 this fall, and that was a T-25 on the Blue Devils' home course. After posting a 72.2 stroke average in 2003-04 and a 72.9 in 2004-05, Smith's fall average is a mysterious 76.08.
(Dis)honorable mention: Travis Bertoni, Cal Poly
Violeta Retamoza, Tennessee
The 2004-05 SEC player of the year started the fall with a T-6 performance at the Cougar Classic but has since failed to shoot lower than 78 in any round. Her next best finish was 52nd at the Mercedes-Benz, a tournament she won the previous year. The senior's slow start explains in part why the Lady Vols have yet to crack the top-10 in the rankings, and puts even greater significance on teammate Marci Turner's strong showing.
(Dis)honorable mention: Sophia Sheridan, California
Most disappointing team
Coach Rick LaRose was optimistic about his squad's chances entering the fall, when it was ranked 15th, but the Wildcats have only one top-five finish thus far: a fourth-place showing at last week's Hooters Collegiate Match Play. Saving grace: The team frequently does better in the spring than the fall and opens the second half of the season on its home course at January's Ping-Arizona Intercollegiate.
(Dis)honorable mention: New Mexico
It seems the Longhorns still haven't gotten over their final-round implosion at last May's NCAA Central Regional. In Texas' three starts, its best showing is a 12th-place finish at the Mason Rudolph. Moreover, no player has posted a top-20 finish. Individually, the best result came from senior Devan Andersen when she finished T-24 at the Derby Invitational.
(Dis)honorable mention: California
Most improved player
Men: Gary Woodland, Kansas
The 21-year-old junior wasn't to be found among the top 250 players in the annual Golfstat Cup rankings at the end of 2004-05, sporting a 74.24 stroke average with a T-13 as his best finish in 12 events. Halfway through 2005-06, he's ranked seventh, his 69.87 average good for a win and three other top-3 finishes.
Honorable mention: Jake Ellison, BYU
Women: Ashley Knoll, Texas A&M
Named the Big 12's top freshman while at Oklahoma State in 2004, Knoll's talent has never been in dispute. But after transferring to College Station and turning in a so-so sophomore season a year ago, The Woodlands, Texas, native has come into her own in her junior year, winning the Lady Tar Heel by 8 shots and finishing second at two other tournaments.
Honorable mention: Irene Cho, USC
Best player you've never heard of
Men: Graham DeLaet, Boise State
The Canadian import has qualified individually for NCAA regionals in each of the last two seasons. Now a senior, he's well on his way to a third post-season appearance, winning twice this fall, finishing second once and posting only two rounds out of 15 over par. DeLaet has nine career wins for the Broncos and holds practically every record in school history.
Honorable mention: Dawie van der Walt, Lamar
Women: Anastasia Kostina, Washington State
The 20-year-old battles with big sister (and former Cougar) Maria for the title of best female Russian golfer ever. An All-American a year ago, Kostina has relished taking over the No. 1 spot in the WSU lineup after the departure of All-American Kim Welch. In four starts this fall, her worst finish is a T-9.
Honorable mention: Samantha Richdale, Illinois State
Best player you'll hear of by season's end
Men: Chris Kirk, Georgia
About the only thing the junior from Woodstock, Ga., didn't do this fall is win an individual title. Instead, he just made do with three top-three finishes, four top-sixes and a 70.8 stroke average. An impressive ball striker, Kirk hit 78.7 percent of greens in regulation and has had every round count toward the team score so far in 2005-06. He's a safe bet to anchor the Bulldogs as they attempt to repeat as national champions.
Honorable mention: Andres Gonzalez, UNLV
Women: Jenny Suh, Alabama
The junior put to rest any fears about how she'd adjust after transferring from Furman this summer by posting three top-five finishes, including a win at the ACC/SEC Challenge. A semifinalist at the U.S. Women's Amateur last summer, Suh is in position to claim a national championship in the not-too-distant future.
Honorable mention: Whitney Wade, Georgia
Biggest question mark entering the spring
Men: Anthony Kim, Oklahoma
As a member of the 2005 U.S. Walker Cup team, a semifinalist at the U.S. Publinks and a quarterfinalist at the U.S. Amateur, Kim wasn't named Golf World's top male college player to watch last September because he wasn't talented. Yet the junior from La Quinta, Calif., and his off-course antics make him his own worst enemy. If he decides to play again for the Sooners this spring (after sitting out the final fall event to, as he said, work out "a couple of issues I had to deal with"), he has as good a shot as any to win the NCAA title. And if he decides to be a distraction ... there's that question mark.
Honorable mention: Matthew Rosenfeld, Texas
Women: Liz Janangelo, Duke
A seven-shot win at the Stanford/Pepsi Intercollegiate in October ended a 17-month winless drought and helped restore the senior's confidence. But will she reclaim her position as the dominant player in women's college golf? No doubt she's got plenty of competition for the title just on her own campus, with Blumenherst and defending NCAA medalist Anna Grzebien practicing alongside her. If Janangelo's fire returns, a second team national championship will be the likely topper to her standout college career.
Honorable mention: Nicole Hage, Auburn
Three things to watch in '06
Freshman will factor in the postseason
Come crunch time in April and May, a first-year college golfer will have to make a crucial putt to win a conference or national title, and we wouldn't bet against them holing the clutch shot. Practically every top team on the women's side has an impact freshman in their lineup who can handle pressure (Blumenherst, Jennie Lee at Duke; Jane Park, Tiffany Joh, Ryann O'Toole at UCLA; Taylor Leon, Mallory Hetzel, Alina Lee at Georgia; Boeljon and Hernandez at Purdue). On the men's side, top-ranked Georgia not only has the top frosh in Brian Harman, but also rookie Michael Green, a kid who, when he's been able to crack into the Bulldogs' deep lineup, has two top-15 finishes in two starts.
Get your whacks in early
For the first time in recent memory, both the top-ranked men's and women's teams entering the spring are unanimous choices. Neither Georgia or Duke are unbeatable, but both have a swagger that separates them from their rivals. If the rest of the pack doesn't put some doubt in their minds early in the spring, knocking them off in a head-to-head battle, the Bulldogs and Blue Devils are likely to build up too much momentum to be stopped come nationals.
Look for a good mudder
That said, you just need to be hot for four days to claim an NCAA title. And with the women's and men's championships being held in Ohio (OSU's Scarlet Course) and Oregon (Sunriver), respectively, weather woes are a real possibility. When rain (or sleet or even snow) inevitably affect tournaments in February and March, check out who handles the wet stuff well and who doesn't. It will help in predicting the outcome of events in May and June.
Ryan Herrington is a senior writer for Golf World magazine