April 30, 2009–First we'll dispense with the hard news: New Mexico State, led by individual champ Travis Reid, won the automatic NCAA Regional bid that goes along with winning the Club Glove WAC Men's Golf Championship. But the real champion might have been the host course, the Rees Jones-designed Rio Secco Golf Club, because everyone involved gave the course, Las Vegas, and the world's number one golf instructor and unofficial host, Butch Harmon, an A+ grade. "First class," said Dave Chaffin, WAC Assistant Commissioner/Communications. "Indescribable, but in a great way," said Utah State Head Coach Dean Johansen, the official host of the tournament. FINAL RESULTS.
"Every coach and student-athlete I talked to commented that it might have been the best golf experience they have ever had," said Johansen, whose team finished fourth. "It was just a great combination of the golf course and the staff. They made us feel welcome from day one, and in past tournaments, we haven't always had that feeling. I told the student-athletes that in a few years they might not remember their scores, but they will never forget what they experienced this week."
Harmon, who operates the Butch Harmon School of Golf that is located at Rio Secco Golf Club, made a special appearance at the opening banquet and entertained the players with tales from his legendary career. Following the dinner, he gave the players and coaches a special VIP tour of his school, complete with the viewing of swing videos from many of his current and former students, including Tiger Woods, Natalie Gulbis, and Phil Mickelson, among others. Also in attendance to welcome the players was Gulbis, who spent time chatting and speaking to the players. Gulbis trains with Harmon and his staff, and is a resident of Lake Las Vegas Resort.
"It was flattering to be asked to host this event, and we believe that a golf course and staff should be honored to do so," said Eric Dutt, Vice President of Golf Operations, and a former All-Conference golfer at Purdue University. "We're glad they had a chance to experience some of the best that Las Vegas golf has to offer, and we treated them like we treat all of our guests." Rio Secco Golf Club is owned and operated by Harrah's Golf and is a Las Vegas resort course that is open for all to play. Click now for your Las Vegas golf tee times at Rio Secco Golf Club or more information about Rio Secco. Other Harrah's Las Vegas golf courses are Cascata and Las Vegas National Golf Club.
The action on the course was also first-class as the Aggies from New Mexico State (NMSU) won their third conference tournament in four years, doing so by a single shot over runner-up Fresno State, coached by Mike Watney, the uncle of Las Vegas resident and PGA Tour champion Nick Watney, who recently moved to Las Vegas to work with Harmon. The battle for the team championship was extremely tight for most of the day, and an official champion wasn't known until several minutes after play was completed and all scores were tallied and verified. NMSU ended with a team total of 870, just six shots over par.
NMSU's Reid stepped to the 18th tee in the final round with a five-shot lead individually, but wasn't sure about the team score. He proceeded to blast his drive into the desert to the right of the fairway and was forced to take an unplayable drop, but the relief still wasn't enough to allow for a shot at the green. He laid up to about 35 yards in front of the final green, and then executed an excellent shot to about four feet. When he made the putt, FSU's Watney walked by a group standing behind the green and said, "They got us by one …" before heading to the clubhouse where the official bad news was delivered to him a few minutes later.
"I honestly didn't know where we stood when he was playing 18," said New Mexico State Head Coach Scott Lieberwirth. "It was back and forth all day and too close to call. And I know that Travis also didn't know where we stood, so who knows if that was an advantage or disadvantage. At that point, he was just playing to get the best score." The bogey on 18 culminated a round of 3-under par 69 for Reid, and was good enough to secure the victory for his team, and the trip to the NCAA Regionals. Reid ended with a 3-day total of 7-under par on the challenging Rio Secco Golf Club course that was set up to mimic PGA Tour conditions. Reid bested WAC Player of the Year Grant Overspike by three shots.
"The goal was to make the course progressively more difficult throughout the tournament without making it unfair," said Charles Packard, Head Professional at Rio Secco. "The course was lengthened by 190 yards over the three days with tee box locations varying on all but four holes. One day they might have hit a short iron into a green and the next a long iron based on the tee box and hole location. The pin locations weren't difficult but the player had to leave the ball in the proper location on the green to have a good birdie putt. We wanted the student-athletes to play in conditions as close as possible to a tour set up."
The move to Las Vegas and Rio Secco Golf Club allowed the WAC event to be played on a neutral site for the first time. The coaches and players seemed to welcome the opportunity from a competitive standpoint because it leveled the playing field and gave no clear home course advantage to any team or player as they played under the heavy pressure. Heading into the tournament, it was clear that no WAC team had a resume good enough to receive an at-large bid into the NCAA tournament.
"I like it a lot better," said Johansen about the neutral site. "I coached in the Big West Conference before coming to the WAC, and we always played at a neutral site. I think it levels the playing field and no team has a clear advantage and that's what you want when the stakes are so high. And the challenge and quality of Rio Secco definitely added to the experience. If you golf your ball, you can get it done out here, but if you are off your game by just a bit, it makes it very difficult."
It appears that the Las Vegas area is quickly becoming the go-to spot for WAC championship events. While the Aggies were earning their trip to the post-season, WAC Commissioner Karl Benson was across town announcing that the 2009 Volleyball tournament will be held in Las Vegas at The Orleans Arena, and earlier this year there were reports that the basketball event may end up in Las Vegas in the future. One thing is for certain: the Club Glove WAC Men's Golf Championship will return to Rio Secco Golf Club in 2010.
"Everything was great and the staff at Rio Secco Golf Club went out of their way to make us feel welcome," said Elizabeth Kampfe, Director of Championships for the WAC. "The course itself was a step above anything else that the student-athletes have experienced, and part of the appeal of coming to Las Vegas is the ease of access for travel. Getting here is easier and cheaper, plus the area has welcomed us and we look forward to returning next year." Also announced at the end of play were the annual awards for the WAC.
First Team All-WAC
Grant Doverspike, Fresno State, Jr.
Travis Reid, New Mexico State, Sr.
Scott Smith, Nevada, So.
Mark Hubbard, San Jose State, So.
Jared Becher, Nevada, Jr.
Second Team All-WAC
Scott Loewen, Boise State, Sr.
Kevin Lozares, New Mexico State, Sr.
Ryan Hallisey, Nevada, Jr.
Jarred Bossio, Idaho, Fr.
Jay Myers, San Jose State, Fr.
Player of the Year: Grant Doverspike, Fresno State
Freshman of the Year: Jarred Bossio, Idaho
Coach of the Year: Scott Lieberwirth, New Mexico State