Courtesy Photo / Jamie Schwaberow
Monday, May 27, 2013 | 2 a.m.
Dwaine Knight stands at the 16th tee during a practice round looking out over the fairway and into the future.
In the coming days, his Rebels golfers would build and then lose a 10-shot lead, leaving them tied at No. 16 with a national championship on the line. This is the moment he anticipated.
“If we’re in the hunt coming down the line here ... no matter where we hit it, we’re just going to play as hard as we can and find a way to get it in the hole,” Knight told his team at the time.
That was the scene in 1998, a story the Hall of Fame coach recalled this week as the Rebels prepare to compete for another national championship.
That was UNLV golf’s only national title and just the second team title in school history (basketball won the other). Yet this isn’t unfamiliar territory for Knight. With a fourth-place finish May 18 at a regional in Columbus, Ohio, Knight is heading to his 26th national championship tournament, the 18th for him at UNLV.
For a few players, though, this is new territory.
The Rebels’ last trip to a national championship tournament was in 2010, back when Carl Jonson and A.J. McInerney were still in high school.
Now Jonson, a sophomore, and McInerney, a freshman from Coronado High, are the Rebels’ top performers heading into the tournament in Atlanta.
Finishing just behind them in Columbus was Kevin Penner, the team’s lone senior and the 2013 Mountain West individual champion. When Penner doesn’t play his best and the Rebels still advance to the national event, it’s easy to see why the Rebels are optimistic about their chances.
“It’s a team effort; everyone has to have each other’s back,” Jonson said. “It keeps everyone’s spirit alive when they can post a score and the other guys have your back.”
The Atlanta course won’t be as familiar as the site of the ’98 championship, which was played at the University of New Mexico, where Knight used to coach.
Still, it’s not completely foreign. The Rebels played at Atlanta’s Capitol City Club in September, finishing tied for third.
“I’m so pumped to get back there,” Jonson said. “It’s going to be something I’ve never experienced before. I’ve never played in something with so much on the line and at the same time so much support behind you.”
They traveled to Atlanta on Friday to get acclimated to the time difference ahead of Monday’s practice round. The other reason to get there early is to play additional rounds at other nearby courses, so long as they use Bermuda grass in the rough.
In Las Vegas and at several tournaments UNLV played this season, the team mostly played on Kentucky bluegrass. The Bermuda grass at Capitol City offers an additional challenge the Rebels couldn’t prepare for while in town.
“Bermuda rough doesn’t have to be very tall to be difficult because the ball sinks all the way to the bottom,” Knight said.
The tournament starts Tuesday with three rounds, and then on Friday, the top eight teams begin three days of match play. Getting to the final group of eight is the goal, although it comes with a whole new set of challenges.
Not only would six straight days of tournament golf be physically difficult, it’s also a major mental grind. Even three days under championship conditions can be grueling, which is why Knight already has ready-made distractions. That may be just going to a movie, or if the team makes it to the weekend, they may catch a Braves game.
Taking the Rebels’ minds off golf away from the course is just as important as keeping them focused while on it. And crucial to that second point is the confidence UNLV takes into the tournament.
Not only did they play and perform well on this course eight months ago, but just last month at Arizona State, the Rebels went head to head against and defeated top-seeded Cal. In the most recent poll, the Golden Bears are ranked No. 1 after receiving every first-place vote.
“With golf, confidence means so much,” Jonson said. “Every team has the talent; it comes down to believing in yourself. I’m sure we’re going to talk about that week (at ASU) quite a bit the next few days.”
For a young team — the other two players at regionals were sophomore Kurt Kitayama and junior Nicholas Maruri — it’s tough to overestimate that victory’s importance. If they played their best, they could beat anybody.
That’s the type of performance they’re searching for, stretched out over six days in Atlanta. And while nerves could be an issue, at least distractions won’t come into play like they did in Columbus.
The regional took place right during academic finals, meaning several players had to do extra work before leaving. Jonson was one of three UNLV traveling players who golfed in a U.S. Open qualifier at TPC Summerlin on May 13, finishing in the top six to advance. Later the same day, he took a final for his accounting class, catching a later flight than teammates to Columbus.
Those won’t be factors this time around. Just the fairway in front of them and the chance to continue a recent stretch that includes, in addition to Penner’s individual conference title, a Masters championship for alumnus Adam Scott and a first career PGA Tour victory for 2012 grad Derek Ernst.
All of that will be on the Rebels’ minds at some point, and the key is to try to live up to that mark without dwelling on getting there. Maybe there will be a moment when all of that hope, fear, excitement and nervousness melts away and the only thing left is a fairway, the future in front of them.
Maybe it will happen on the 16th tee, 15 years and a couple of thousand miles away from the Rebels’ last great triumph.
“We didn’t hit it perfect,” Knight said of that finish, “but they found a way to get it down.”