Brian Hamilton: Hometown golfer on verge of NCAA title
When O.D. Vincent departed the UCLA golf program to become the head coach at Duke University last year, it left Nevada Union grad Erik Flores and his Bruin teammates in limbo as the search for a replacement began.
But Flores and his fellow Bruins didn’t sit idly by, waiting for a new coach to be announced.
Instead, they started e-mailing school officials, making a case for then-assistant coach Derek Freeman to take the reins of UCLA’s nationally-ranked program.
And, boy, I bet the UCLA brass is glad to have had that input now.
Flores and his teammates are heading into today’s final round of the 111th NCAA Championship with a three stroke lead over Pac-10 rival USC and Southeastern Conference power Clemson at Purdue University’s Kampen Course in West Lafayette, Ind.
“Personally, I know our team really wasn’t shaken that much by (the coaching change),” Flores said by phone Friday, after play had been suspended due to stormy weather that included tornado warnings. “It’s not that we didn’t like O.D. – we like him a lot – it’s just that we were all very confident in our assistant coach, when our coach left for the other job.
“All of us started writing e-mails to the athletic director (Dan Guerrero) to say we’d like (Freeman). I just think we were all confident in him becoming our coach and, when it all comes down to it, we did have the same horses running the race.”
Three of those horses were of the stud variety, if you will. Flores and fellow junior Lucas Lee, along with senior Kevin Chappell had all earned All-American honors over the course of the prevous two seasons.
And this week in West Lafayette, those horses – and few others – have been off and running for the Bruins, who finished seventh in the NCAA Championships the past two seasons.
Chappell has been head and shoulders ahead of the field, currently holding a four-stroke lead as the individual leader on the western Indiana course. Flores is currently in an 11-way tie for 43rd on the leaderboard at 11-over par, while Lee, Philip Francis and Craig Leslie have helped provide the depth that has UCLA on the verge of a national championship match.
“Today was probably the hardest day so far,” said Flores, who has shot 76, 75 and 76 over the first three days. “We got an opposite win of what we’d had and that really made the course play more difficult.
“I was hitting 3- or 4-iron into a couple of greens on par fours, so things were playing pretty long into the wind. It was tough.”
Flores hopes have a better round today – which folks back home can watch live via streaming video at http://www.golfstat.com, beginning at 7 a.m. – in order to hold off the other final 14 teams in contention for college golf’s most-coveted crown.
Though he’s a long way from Grass Valley today, he hasn’t forgotten where he got his start. And those of us who remember the lanky little lad who was landing atop junior tournaments all over the west, swinging sticks that seemed to be as tall as he was, certainly haven’t forgotten him either.
One could tell just how focused Flores was about this game at a very young age. He often shared stories of his tournament wins, by not only being capable of spitting out scores and statistics, but also by replaying holes with what seemed to be a photographic memory.
It made a sports writer’s job pretty easy, capturing the essence of his round even though it was played thousands of miles away.
His love for the game was written all over that million dollar smile those eyes that seemed to brighten as he recalled the flight of the ball on some of his best shots.
Yeah, we saw this sort of thing coming – and more than likely even more on the horizon – for this guy.
“We all have our own stories on how we got here,” Flores said. “For me, it was hacking around Alta Sierra (Country Club) and playing for Nevada Union.
“It hasn’t hit me yet (of being so close to the championship). But when I decided to come to UCLA, I came here because I knew it was the best place for me, individually, and the best place to accomplish the goals we all want to accomplish.
“And it’s really cool to see all of that coming together.”
And all of us back home in Nevada County couldn’t agree more.
Brian Hamilton is sports editor at The Union. His column appears Saturdays. Contact him via e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at 477-4240.
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