LAKELAND – The Matlock Collegiate Classic, which annually draws the best NCAA Division II men's golf teams in the country, begins Monday morning at Lone Palm Golf Club with an 8:30 a.m. shotgun start. Now in its 37th year, the Matlock features 15 teams competing in three rounds across two days. The first two rounds are Monday, with round two beginning immediately after the conclusion of round one. Tuesday's action gets underway with another shotgun start at 8:30 a.m. Live stats will be available through Golfstat, with pairings and individual tee times available Sunday afternoon.
The Matlock normally serves as the first tournament of the semester for the participating teams, and more often than not, a preview for the type of competition most of them will be facing in their various postseason tournaments later in the spring. This year's field is typical for the Matlock Collegiate Classic, with all of the top five, seven of the top 10, and nine of the top 20 teams in the Bushnell Division II coaches' poll among those competing. Three others are receiving votes in the poll. The tournament also has six of the top nine teams from last year's Division II National Finals, led by national champion Florida Southern and runner-up Lynn.
The Moccasins begin the spring ranked No. 2 in the country, with West Florida the only team ahead of them. The Moccasins defeated the Argonauts in the national semifinals last year on their way to winning their 13th national championship. Lynn is ranked No. 3, Nova Southeastern is No. 4, and Florida Tech is No. 5. The remaining top-10 teams in this year's Matlock Classic are No. 9 Saint Leo and No. 10 Columbus State. The list of nationally ranked teams also includes No. 12 Barry and No. 18 Rollins, while North Alabama, Valdosta State, and St. Edward's (TX) are all receiving votes in the coaches poll. Completing the 15-team field are Georgia College, Palm Beach Atlantic, and Eckerd.
All but one team also played in last year's Matlock Classic, with Palm Beach Atlantic replacing Armstrong State, which consolidated with Georgia Southern University and no longer sponsors athletics. The Sailfish are playing in the tournament for the first time. Other than Florida Southern, Columbus State has the most appearances with 23 prior to this year.
"I would have to say West Florida is the favorite," said Florida Southern head coach Doug Gordin. "They won three out of four events in the fall, and we were the only team to beat them. They're ranked number one so I would say they're the clear favorite, but we're right up there too. Nova, Lynn, Florida Tech and possibly Barry are among the others I could see winning."
In addition to hosting some of the best teams in the country, the 2018 Matlock Collegiate Classic will feature many of the top individual golfers as well. Six of the top 10 in the Golfstat individual rankings will be playing in the tournament, led by West Florida junior Jacob Huizinga and Florida Southern senior John VanDerLaan who are currently ranked 1-2. Other golfers among the top-10 are West Florida's Henry Westmoreland and Chandler Blanchet, Nova Southeastern's Juan Jose Guerra, and Florida Tech's Max O'Hagan and Han Xue. The Moccasins also have senior John Coultas ranked No. 18, and the tournament will likely feature 12 golfers who enter the spring in the Golfstat top-30. Blanchet was last year's NCAA Division II Player-of-the-Year, and Coultas won that award two years ago.
"For us to win, we need John Coultas and John VanDerLaan to play really well, and the rest of the team to contribute at least one under-par score a round. If that happens, I think we'll be all right. We played pretty well in qualifying, but qualifying does not dictate what you will shoot in the tournament."
This is the 11th year in a row the tournament will be played at Lone Palm Golf Club, and the 75 golfers will play a par-72 course covering 7,065 yards. After a practice round on Sunday, the tournament officially begins with a shotgun start Monday morning at 8:30 a.m. The second round will be played immediately afterward, with the same pre-determined pairings. In Tuesday's final round, teams and players will be grouped according to their standing in the tournament. The top four individual scores in each round count toward the team score.
Florida Southern will play with West Florida and Nova Southeastern in the first two rounds, with those five groups teeing off holes one through three. (A full list of pairings will be available Sunday afternoon.)
The Moccasins have won their own tournament seven times, most recently in 2008. They were runner-up in 2010, 2011, and 2013, and have finished fifth each of the last three years. Since becoming strictly a Division II tournament in 2005, a school from the Sunshine State Conference has won the Matlock title nine out of 13 years, but West Florida broke a 5-year winning streak by the SSC in the 2017 Matlock. The Argonauts were the sixth different team to win in the last six years, following Florida Tech, Barry, Lynn, Nova Southeastern and Saint Leo.
The Argonauts won last year with a record score of 830 (-34), finishing 18 shots ahead of second-place Nova Southeastern, and 21 ahead of third-place Lynn. That broke the previous Matlock record by eight shots and was accomplished by shooting -10 in the first round, -13 in the second, and -11 in the third. As well as the Argos played, however, they still had to come from behind to win after Nova Southeastern held the lead at the end of round one with a -13, and the top seven teams in the tournament all broke par.
Four of the five West Florida golfers who played in last year's Matlock are in the lineup again this year. Huizinga, Westmoreland, Blanchet, and Christian Bosso are all ranked No. 11 or higher in the Golfstat individual rankings, and they're attempting to make West Florida the first team to win back-to-back Matlock Classics since Florida Southern did it in 2005 and 2006. The Argonauts have placed in the top-3 six times in the last 13 years, a number bettered only by Florida Southern with seven such finishes.
West Florida's lineup may be loaded, but so too is Florida Southern's, and the Moccasins also boast defending individual champion John Coultas. The senior shot a 14-under par 202 to win the 2017 Matlock and beat out Huizinga by one stroke, while finishing two strokes ahead of Blanchet and Nova Southeastern's Richard Mansell. Those four golfers posted four of the seven lowest individual scores in the tournament's history, with Coultas two strokes off the record set by Florida Southern's Tim Crouch in 2013.
Coming in just behind them was senior John VanDerLaan with a final score of 205 (-11), and though he finished fifth overall, he tied the tournament's single-round scoring record with an eight-under-par 64 in the final round. He would go on to set the school record for lowest season scoring average while tying another with nine top-five finishes. Both VanDerLaan and Blanchet from West Florida now have a chance to finish in the top-10 of the Matlock four consecutive years.
VanDerLaan again leads Florida Southern with a 69.67 stroke average for the season and a 71.34 career average. Coultas is at 71.25 for the season and 71.53 in his career. They each finished in the top-20 of every tournament last fall.
Freshman Jacob Penny has been a major contributor too with a 71.73 average. After playing in the first tournament of the season as an individual and shooting one-under par, Penny has followed that with three consecutive top-20s as a member of the regular lineup and ended the fall by tying for eighth in the Miami Intercollegiate.
Junior Christian Anderson has a 73.33 average, not only the best of his career but more than one stroke lower than his average as a sophomore. He posted a pair of top-20 finishes in the fall, one of them in the Miami Intercollegiate to close out the semester. Anderson will be playing in his first Matlock after he was forced to miss last year's tournament due to illness.
Completing the Florida Southern lineup is sophomore Chase Ibbotson, a member of last year's squad who helped the Mocs win the national title. He played in two tournaments during the fall, one of them as an individual, and has regained his spot in the starting five for this week's Matlock. Ibbotson was one of the Mocs' three winners against West Florida in the match play portion of the 2017 National Finals.
This year's Matlock Collegiate Classic has added significance for Gordin, as it will be his last as the Moccasins' head coach after he announced his retirement last summer. In essence, it begins the final stretch for the hall of fame coach as his career winds down this spring. Gordin has been in charge of the Moccasins for 23 years, leading them to six national championships and 17 trips to the national finals up to this point.
"This team has the best chance to win the Matlock since the team I had in 1999, and they did win that year, but I'm very much looking forward to my last Matlock as the coach at Florida Southern. There's a lot of good memories from the last 22, and I hope to make one more great memory this year."