Provo • Although the BYU men’s golf team placed second at the Pullman Regional last week in Washington, just two shots behind first-place Texas A&M, the Cougars aren’t one of the favorites this week at the NCAA Championships in Fayetteville, Ark.
But once again, they will be one of the most talked-about teams, thanks to the school’s policy that prohibits Sunday activities, for religious reasons. For the second-straight year, the Cougars will be allowed to play Thursday, a day before everybody else begins the tournament, and will count that round as their Sunday round.
On Sunday, when the other 23 teams are playing their third rounds, the Cougars will be attending church and relaxing in their hotel rooms away from The Blessings Golf Club. Their Thursday scores will be posted Sunday afternoon, and the debate will rage on whether altering the format for just one school is fair or not.
“Exact same schedule as last year,” longtime BYU coach Bruce Brockbank said. “The other coaches, I think they understand the NCAA’s position more this year, so there’s less [talk about it]. But I think there are still some that really don’t like it. They are going to say what they want to say. We just have to go out and play ... and ignore it."
This year, the Cougars are hoping for an entirely different outcome, having learned from their experience at Karsten Creek Golf Club in central Oklahoma in 2018, the first time they had qualified for the national tournament since the NCAA adopted a schedule that included a Sunday round a few years prior.
BYU’S ‘SUNDAY’ ROUND, EXPLAINED
Because school policy forbids activities on Sundays, for religious reasons, BYU’s men’s golf team will play alone Thursday at the NCAA Championship in Fayetteville, Ark. The other 23 teams start tournament play on Friday. The entire field will play Friday and Saturday, then BYU will not play Sunday and use its scores from Thursday’s round as its “third round” scores. The field will be cut after Sunday to 15 teams and nine individuals from non-qualifying teams for Monday’s final round.
The NCAA’s accommodation — which BYU remains “wholeheartedly grateful for,” Brockbank stresses, as did BYU women’s golf coach Carrie Roberts three years ago when her squad received the same treatment — proved to be a disadvantage in Stillwater.
That’s because Thursday’s weather was awful and Sunday’s was almost ideal. Senior Patrick Fishburn, BYU’s best player, shot a 78 amid the rain, lightning and multiple stoppages of play, and the Cougars posted a 24-over-par score, easily their worst round in the 72-hole stroke-play portion of the tournament.
“It was a nightmare,” Brockbank said.
Of course, the Cougars can’t control the weather, he said, but they can prepare for some other factors. They’ve practiced more in the afternoon, which is when they will play Thursday’s round, after the other teams play their practice rounds that morning and the tees and hole locations are changed to how they will be on Sunday.
The Cougars have played a few rounds alone in Provo, going out without markers (playing partners) because they have to play that way Thursday. The BYU golfers will tee off one by one and will be accompanied by a walking scorer. Other teams are allowed to watch, although none did last year, to Brockbank’s recollection.
“No one else wanted to face that weather,” he said with a laugh.
Junior Rhett Rasmussen, individual champion at the Pullman Regional, said playing alone is a disadvantage because the pace of play is different and not being able to watch competitors hit shots, especially putts, leaves golfers with less information to analyze.
“It is definitely a really weird thing, playing by yourself and not getting to see everybody else hit their shots,” Rasmussen said. “Last year, we didn’t handle it well, and the weather was horrible, to boot. We just have to do a better job of pacing ourselves this year. I think we will be OK.”
Brockbank says both BYU teams have asked the NCAA to allow markers to play alongside their players — perhaps top local high school players or the best players from the host club — but the requests haven’t been granted and won’t be Thursday.
“We are probably a little bit behind the eight ball just asking them to evaluate it,” he said. “They said, ‘no, we are doing it just like we did it last year, and we will re-evaluate it in the future.’ And I said, ‘OK, great, we will do what we can.'"
Brockbank realizes “a lot of people aren’t fans of the whole [accommodation] thing,” and surmises that the grumbling will increase if Thursday’s weather is significantly better than Sunday’s. But he won’t apologize for BYU needing the changes to participate.
“Our guys have earned the chance to be here,” he said. “They’ve put in the work and been rewarded with this wonderful opportunity. Playing in the NCAAs, there’s nothing like it.”
Can the Cougars earn some attention for their play on the course this year, instead of their refusal to play on one particular day?
“The way we played in Pullman gave us a lot of confidence,” Rasmussen said. “It all kind of came together for me and a lot of other guys, so we are excited to see what we can do.”
Even if it means playing alone.