By John Davis, Oxford Citizen
A few minutes before Chris Malloy and his Ole Miss Rebels found out where they would be playing golf in the NCAA Championships, football coach Hugh Freeze came into the watch party room at The 1810 Grill.
Matt Insell, the Ole Miss women’s basketball coach, was already seated at the table, eating his breakfast next to the players, when Freeze gave his congratulations on the successful season.
It was another example of how well the coaches in all sports get along on campus. It was an even bigger example of just how far the Rebels have come in one season under Malloy’s direction. For the first time in four seasons, the Rebels are headed to play in the NCAAs as one of 13 teams that will compete at The Farm Golf Club in Rancho Santa Fe, California starting on Thursday.
Malloy and his players clapped their hands and congratulated each other when the news came across the TV screen glued to the Golf Network on Monday morning. A lot of hard work was rewarded with another chance to compete at the ultimate level of the sport. Malloy felt like his players took ownership of the team during the season, and as he said “got after it.”
“One of the turning points was when we didn’t play very well at Georgia Southern’s tournament,” said Malloy, who at one point didn’t think his team would make it to the postseason this year. “It was kind of gut check time for our team. I told them this is why I coach. I love to figure out who we are as a team and how it was going to shape us as men as much as it was golfers. They got competitive. I told them to look in the mirror and figure out what they needed to address and then get competitive with each other. They really have gone out and done a great job. They’ve earned it.”
Ever since that moment, when the players started to evaluate themselves, the Rebels got better on the various courses and tournaments they played in.
“If you put a lot of heat on yourself and practice hard, by the time you get to the tournament, it’s almost going to seem easier,” Malloy said. “You’re almost going to take some of the pressure off.”
Ole Miss was ninth at the SEC Championships in April and because there are so many good schools, that finish signified what Malloy had felt about his improving team.
“If you can finish in the top 10, then you know and we kind of knew going into it that the guys had played well enough throughout the season,” Malloy said. “We knew they were going to get a bid, but that finish gives you a little bit more momentum going forward. For these guys, I wasn’t sure what we were getting. They progressively got better as the year went along and for them to end like this, to get to regionals and play as a team after many of them haven’t ever been, that’s special. We talk about changing the culture around here, and that’s probably the biggest thing you can do, to get yourself in the mix and get into postseason.”
The course the Rebels will play on is a tight 6,947 yards. Par is 72, and it’s all in how you drive the ball in the fairway, Malloy said.
“It’s a great draw for us. Bent grass greens. I had a team at Florida State that went out there that was a Bermuda grass playing team and we transitioned well,” he said. “I think the guys will love it. It’s certainly good weather. I think we’ll welcome that part of it. It doesn’t matter what regional you go to, you have to play well and I fully expect these guys to do that and play relaxed golf.”
Playing relaxed is the key to all sports. Never too up, never too down. And in golf, being even keel is as important as a good caddy or putter.
“Even though we are playing against other teams, we can’t worry about other teams. We have to play the golf course and play it a little bit better than they do,” Malloy said. “I told these guys that the key to getting through regionals and getting to the finals is if they play relaxed golf and have fun out there. They’ll be fine. They’ll play good enough golf to get through. A lot of guys will get out there and get tense and probably let the moment get the best of them.”
Tense was not what the Rebels demonstrated Monday morning, and it’s not how they have played down the stretch.
This program isn’t where Malloy would ultimately like it, but it’s a start, a good start, to bigger and better things down the road.