Welsh native puts ETSU back on college golf map

He has just one semester left to play in college golf, but on a cold February morning in Johnson City, Tenn., Rhys Davies really isn't thinking about that right now. The focus is on the here and now, the next event on the East Tennessee State schedule, the Puerto Rico Invitational in two weeks. After that, it will turn to the Seminole Intercollegiate, set for the first week of March.

One tournament at a time. That's the only way the 21-year-old Buccaneers senior knows how to operate. It's also the mind-set that has established the competitor teammates have dubbed "The Package" for his combination of talent and charisma as one of the best players in collegiate golf, a winner of eight tournaments in 3½ years after last fall's victory at the Bank of Tennessee Intercollegiate at the Ridges, and a candidate for national player-of-the-year honors this season with a 69.4 stroke average.

"I've had a great time here and really enjoyed playing on the team with coach [Fred] Warren and the other boys," Davies says. "In that respect it will be a little sad to leave. But there's still a lot to play for between now and then."

Indeed, having earned first-team All-American honors the past two seasons and cemented his place as the best golfer in school history, Davies has the opportunity this spring to turn a great college career (71.28 career average; 25 top-10 finishes) into a historic one, particularly if he were to make a run at the NCAA title come June.

Again, though, that's getting ahead of himself.

Interestingly enough, if not for a broken thumb Davies suffered before a junior golf tournament in his native Wales, the college golf world might never have heard of the well-spoken, 6-foot-1 lad with the wavy brown locks. As a teenager, Davies was just as proficient on a cricket pitch as he was on the links, an impressive statement when you consider he won the British Boys golf championship over Pablo Martin in 2003.

"I just sort of had a gut feeling," Davies explains. That and the fact that he actually broke his thumb during a cricket practice. And so it was that he came to the U.S. on a golf scholarship, picking East Tennessee over Oklahoma State.

Upon arriving stateside, the reputation that proceeded Davies emphasized a skill seemingly rare in young golfers: an impeccable short game. Of course, you need to have some talent with your wedge and putter when you struggle as he did hitting fairways and greens.

"He was an inconsistent ball striker. I think he'll even admit that," Warren says. "But he's not afraid of hard work. He's a wonderful competitor, and he set out to improve his game tee to green."

In Davies' mind, there wasn't really much of an alternative. "I had to improve in order to give myself chances to make birdies," he says, explaining his dogged pursuit of grooving a repeatable swing he wouldn't have to fight on a regular basis. "I was always capable of holing putts. But I wasn't always capable of knocking it close and giving myself a chance."

While refining his game physically through repeated visits to the driving range, Davies had to do the same mentally as he adapted to American-style courses and the depth of competition among the college ranks. The turning point in Davies' maturation came in the summer of 2004 when he was selected to play in the Palmer Cup, an annual team competition between collegians from the U.S. and Europe, after a freshman season that had both ups and downs. Competing against some of the top amateurs in the world, Davies won both his singles' matches and posted a 3-1 record at Ballybunion GC while the Europeans sprinted off with the overall victory.

"When I went to that event," Davies says, "and competed against those boys and had a lot of success against them, I think that definitely gave me a boost to say 'I'm good enough to play at this level,' and I progressed from there."

After Davies posted scoring averages of 70.5 and 70.78 his sophomore and junior seasons, respectively, some wondered if he would be back for his senior season, considering the track record of other Europeans who have excelled in college golf and left early. Yet the thought didn't really enter his mind, in part because of a desire to play on the Great Britain & Ireland Walker Cup team this September at Northern Ireland's Royal County Down (he was a member of the losing GB&I side at Chicago GC in 2005).

In part, too, Davies very much enjoyed college life, and as a B student on track to graduate with a business management degree this spring, the challenges of balancing athletics and academics motivated him. "The professional game will be around a long time," he says. "I'm still only 21. I am eager to get out there and show what I can do, but at the same time I'm patient enough to realize there is plenty of time ahead of me."

Warren believes for as good a golfer as Davies is, he's a better person. It's why the nickname "The Package" is so fitting.

"I spoke at a Boy Scout banquet once and was talking [to the team] about what I was going to say," Warren recalls. "And he helped me with the opening lines. He said 'Coach, this is a good one. Here's how I would do this.' And I used the line. I thought, 'This guy is sharp.'"

Warren, too, appreciates the impact Davies has had on the ETSU program, one that was a perennial top-15 school in the 1990s but was starting to lose its way until the Welshman arrived. "We've got a solid team, and I think we can surprise a lot of people this spring," Davies notes, the inflection in his voice providing the lone hint of melancholy about any sand slipping through the college hour glass.

There will be time, though, for reflection on a college career well-played. For now, there's still a tournament to focus on. And it's time for Rhys Davies to go back to work.

The Fab Five
The top five teams right now in the country:

Men's teams

1. Alabama
Seventh-place finish to close the fall in Hawaii was the lone hiccup for the Crimson Tide thus far in 2006-07. With the target now firmly planted on their backs, it's time to see if they're truly for real.

2. Oklahoma State

Pablo Martin and Jonathan Moore are back in the lineup for the entire spring, giving the Cowboys arguably the best one-two punch in the country.

3. Stanford

Cardinal coach Conrad Ray can only hope the winter break won't stall the momentum -- and confidence -- his squad gained with three wins and five top-fives in the fall.

4. Florida
Billy Horschel + confidence + home-course advantage at Gator Invitational = strong start to the spring for the Gators.


Having spent the fall getting his entire squad starts, it's now up to Bruins coach O.D. Vincent to narrow down his lineup and build continuity.

Women's teams:

1. Georgia

Only question mark entering the fall is, how will Bulldogs coach Todd McCorkle do after hip surgery last month?

2. Duke

The fact that this is the first time in a few years that the Blue Devils don't start the spring as the hands-down favorite might prove beneficial for coach Dan Brooks in motivating his players.

3. Arizona State

Sun Devils coach Melissa Luellen has her deepest squad since taking over the program in the fall of 2002.

4. Vanderbilt
The Lady Commodores surprised many in the fall and aren't too happy about the whispers that their win over Duke at the Lady Tar Heel Invitational should be dismissed because of the Blue Devils' scorecard mishap.

5. Auburn

It's time for senior Nicole Hage to step up and carry the Tigers, à la Maria Martinez a year ago. Says here she's up to the task.

Stat of the Week
241Number of days between Arizona fifth-year senior Brian Prouty's last two college rounds -- the 2006 NCAA Championship, final round and the 2007 Ping-Arizona Intercollegiate, first round.

Stat of the Week, Part II
15Decrease in the number of strokes taken in those two rounds. Prouty shot a 77 in his final 18 at the Crosswater Course at Sunriver (Ore.) Resort on June 3, 2006, and then shot a 62 at Arizona National GC Jan. 29, 2007, a tournament record. Prouty followed up last week's play with a 67-70 to claim medalist honors with a 14-under 199, four shots better than New Mexico senior Charlie Beljan and East Tennessee State freshman Seamus Power.

In between last year's NCAAs and last week's victory, Prouty injured his left wrist at last summer's Arizona Amateur and required surgery to address cartilage damage that kept him out of the lineup the entire fall. It wasn't until mid-December that doctors cleared him to practice putting and not until a few weeks before the Tucson event that he could take full swings.

"I knew I was hitting the ball well, and I felt good about my game," Prouty told the Tucson Citizen. "But the first time back? It was a big surprise."

"He worked hard, he deserved this," said Arizona coach Rick LaRose. "He worked hard through his rehab when others might have said, 'ah, lets see what happens.' "

What to Watch For
• The team currently ranks 15th in the Golf World college coaches' poll and is coming off a seventh-place finish at the Ping-Arizona intercollegiate. Yet after this week's UH-Hilo Intercollegiate, the Arizona State men's team plays six more tournaments between now and NCAA regionals but will have to travel more than 250 miles only two more times (the Oregon Duck Invitational in March and the Pac-10 Championship in April, both at Eugene (Ore.) CC). Compare this to fellow Pac-10 rivals UCLA (the gold team makes two cross-country trips and has no events in California), Stanford (one to Puerto Rico and only one within 280 miles) and USC (two cross-country and only one within 360 miles). Does this mean the Sun Devils will be more rested come the postseason and have a better shot at the NCAA championship? I'm not sure I'm ready to go that far. Still, less travel can't hurt a team in terms of creating fewer disruptions and leading to fewer headaches.

• A four-shot victory over BYU at the Ping-Arizona Intercollegiate gave the 13th-ranked UNLV men's team its first team title in the 2006-07 season. More importantly, it should give other top Division I teams cause for concern. While not having a big-name player to anchor the Rebels lineup, à la Ryan Moore and Andres Gonzales, UNLV's roster obviously runs deep. C.J. Gatto and Jarred Texter posted top-10s in Tucson to lead the way. Meanwhile, last year's impressive freshman, Seung-Su Han, wasn't in the lineup, continuing a disappointing sophomore campaign for the South Korea native. If Han starts clicking, considering the strength of the rest of the team, you're looking at a great dark horse come NCAA championship time in June.

• To address a cyst on his L4/L5 vertebre that had caused him pain in his leg for nearly two years now, East Tennessee men's coach Fred Warren thought he would need surgery that required a three- to five-day stay in the hospital and also have to wear a back brace for months and restrict travel for up to four weeks. Instead, the GCAA Hall of Fame coach underwent successful microsurgery outside Knoxville this week that was an outpatient procedure requiring only a few days of rest. Look for him to accompany his 16th-ranked team to Puerto Rico in two weeks.

Tournament to Watch
Men: SunTrust Gator Invitational
When: Saturday to Sunday
Where: University of Florida GC, Gainesville, Fla.
Field: Alabama-Birmingham, Central Florida, Coastal Carolina, Florida, Florida State, Georgia Southern, Georgia State, Kentucky, LSU, North Florida, Ohio State, Purdue, Tulsa, Wake Forest
Defending champion: Florida (15-over 855); Sam Korbe, Tulsa (even-par 210)
Skinny: After an impressive fall season that included one win and five top-five finishes in five events, the No. 2 ranked Gators are looking to pick up where they left off as they open the spring season. Given their history in their home event, chances are quite good they'll play the part of poor hosts; in 20 of the tournament's first 29 years, Florida has been the victory, including a six-shot triumph over Tulsa a year ago. Only seven Gators have won individually after then Florida senior Brett Stegmaier fell to Tulsa's Sam Korbe in a playoff in 2006. Past champions include Paul Azinger (Florida State, 1981), David Toms (LSU, 1989), Chris DiMarco (Florida, 1990) and Chris Couch (Florida, 1994, 1995).

Women: Northrup Grumman Regional Challenge
When: Monday to Wednesday
Where: Palos Verdes GC, Palos Verdes Estates, Calif.
Field: Arizona, Arizona State, California, Florida, Florida State, Kent State, Michigan State, Oklahoma State, Ohio State. Pepperdine, Stanford, Texas A&M, UCLA, USC, Wake Forest
Defending champion: Arizona State (40-over 852); Irene Cho, USC (one-over 14)
Skinny: It's a cruel trick Palos Verdes plays on women's collegiate teams when they arrive at the course just outside Los Angeles. While players are still taking their games out of winter hiberation, the layout traditionally has some of the most challenging (read: fast) greens they will face. "It reminds you of a U.S. Open-style course," said Ohio State women's coach Therese Hession, whose school has hosted the event since its 1996 inception. "You can't overpower it. You've got to be patient and smart." Again the field has several highly ranked squads (13 of the 15 schools are in Golf World's top 25) including No. 3 Arizona State, No. 7 UCLA and No. 10 Pepperdine. A year ago, the Sun Devils used their one-shot win over USC in this spring opener to kick start an impressive spring season that saw then jump from seventh to second in the polls. Already ranked No. 2 entering spring of 2007, a victory could be enough to take the top spot away from Georgia.

For more reporting on college golf from Golf World senior writer Ryan Herrington, visit his Campus Insider blog.