JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – After Top 5 finishes in eight events this year, Jacksonville University's men's golf team is starting to attract some national attention. As of this writing, the Dolphins are ranked 32nd in the nation in the GolfStat.com rankings. Some may be a bit surprised that JU has had so much recent success, but for Head Coach Mike Blackburn, this is just the next block on top of the foundation he has been building for years.
"I think the pieces are now in place for JU to be a part of the NCAA picture," said Blackburn. "I think that we should be a part of that landscape. I believe in JU, and although it's taken a while, we've built a pretty good foundation for the golf program here. We've got a terrific practice facility on campus, we host the Sea Best Invitational at TPC Sawgrass, and we get to play on great courses like Marsh Landing and Hidden Hills and Pablo Creek. We've got great facilities, a great climate, and now a team that is starting to believe in itself."
And the team has plenty of reasons to believe in itself. At 32nd, the Dolphins rank higher than they have ever been in program history, including when JU won the ASUN Conference Tournament in the 2005-06 season with Russell Knox and Duncan Stewart on the team. They have also won two team championships and two individual titles, and defeated at least one Top 30 team in five events this season.
"I think as a group, we're getting more comfortable competing in that arena," said Blackburn. "For some of these events, it's the second or third year that we've played in them. So they're getting a little bit used to the golf course. I think it goes back to our original thoughts about believing in themselves and not worrying about who they play. They're just trying to take care of their own business. I would say that playing teams that are ranked higher is what motivates them. Instead of it being an intimidating factor its serves as a motivating factor."
Individually the Dolphins are as good 1-5 as they have ever been. David Wicks ranks fifth in the Team Europe Arnold Palmer Cup rankings, in which the Top 10 collegiate American-born golfers and the Top 10 collegiate European-born golfers compete for the Arnold Palmer Cup in match play, four ball, and foursomes. The senior from Bexhill, England, is averaging 70.53 through 19 rounds this year with one individual title and seven Top 20 finishes.
"Wicks' stroke average is around 70.5, which is amazing, so his high level of consistency is really what's driving his ranking," said Blackburn. "He plays really well most weeks."
Raul Pereda has kept pace with Wicks for much of the season. The junior from Cordoba, Mexico, is averaging 71.42 through 19 rounds this season with five Top 20 finishes. He also finished tied for second at the Dogwood Invitational, a prominent summer amateur event, and competes with the Mexican national team.
"Raul, I think, is continuing to grow, progress, and build up confidence," said Blackburn. "He's a star waiting to happen. He's very talented, he's passionate about playing golf, and he's really happy with his contributions in terms of trying to get better. He's committed."
Fellow senior Ryan Jahn has had a career year in 2016-17. He's lowered his per round average from 75.58 in 2015-16 to just 71.68 this year. He won the individual title at the Bridgestone, and has three Top 10 finishes so far this season.
"Ryan is sort of coming to his own this year," said Blackburn. "He won the stroke play portion of the match play event at Chateau Elan and I think that gave him the confidence that has helped him move forward. I think that he's just starting to believe in himself more. When you're standing over a difficult shot, its one thing to say you're going to hit it, but to be committed to it, whether you hit it good or not, will put you at another level. When you can do that, from a mental standpoint, your chance of success will go up exponentially."
Junior Elliott Fullalove was ranked 24th in the first Arnold Palmer Cup rankings released in the fall, and has three Top 20 finishes this season. Recently the junior from Kingswood, England, has struggled a bit, but is still expected to do big things and is averaging 73.05 through 19 rounds.
"Elliott hasn't played to his expectations and I think that's hurting him," said Blackburn. "From the standpoint that he knows how good he is, it may be that his expectations are maybe holding him back a little. I think he's trying too hard, and that he's incredibly talented. I'm more surprised at him shooting a 75 than I am a 68. Just from what I know he's capable of, I'd say it's not a question of when he's going to break out and play well, but when."
Sophomore Sam Uhland has wowed in two seasons with the Dolphins. The 2015-16 All-ASUN Second Team and All-Freshman Team member has three Top 20 finishes this season, including ninth overall at the 2017 John Hayt Invitational. He is averaging 74.26 through 19 rounds.
"Sam finished ninth this week, so he's starting to find his game. He's very talented, and though he hasn't been quite as consistent this year, he's stayed committed and he's working hard. I believe in him," said Blackburn.
Blackburn is confident about the future too; so confident that he signed a new multi-year contract with the Dolphins this spring.
"I live here, I'm happy with what I do, and I believe in JU," said Blackburn. "Our goal moving forward is to recruit at the highest level. We try to recruit the whole student-athlete, and so far our kids are smart and they're good players, so it seems to be a good prescription."
JU Athletic Director Alex Ricker-Gilbert is confident in that future as well.
"The trajectory of the men's golf program is not surprising," said Ricker-Gilbert. "I have full confidence in Coach Blackburn's ability not only to coach but also to recruit the right kind of student-athlete, and he has shown that in his time here. We have the program in a space where they're nationally competitive. Mike is a very loyal coach who loves JU, so I was thrilled to be able to offer him a multi-year contract before this spring. We will have Coach Blackburn here for years to come as we work to continue to build the program into what we believe could be a year-in and year-out national competitor."