Tartan golf drives home a fourth-place finish at UAA championship

The Carnegie Mellon golf team’s season ended in spectacular fashion last week as senior Matt Simone capped his career by winning the University Athletic Association individual championship following the Tartans’ fourth-place finish in Pomona, N.Y. Although the team will likely come up short in its bid for a first- ever appearance in next month’s Division III national tournament, by all accounts, the Tartans thrived during the 2006 spring season.

“I think what this team did was maybe give us a breakthrough as far as getting respect on a national basis,” said head coach Rich Erdelyi, who believes this year’s squad to be the best during his 20-year tenure.

After carding an opening-round 309 at the Minisceongo Golf Club, the team sat in fourth place among the five-team field. Simone’s remarkable four-under -par 68 on Monday helped keep the Tartans within striking distance going into Tuesday’s final round.

“It was a great day,” said Simone, who fired a 32 on the front nine, netting six birdies for the day.

“My distance control all day was just fantastic.... I couldn’t miss on the front.”

Sophomores Blake Darby (81) and Howard Smith (78) and first-year Alex Timmons (82) rounded out the Tartans’ Monday scorecard.

Going into the final round, Carnegie Mellon found itself only nine strokes behind the leader, Emory University, still with a chance to make a run at the championship. Smith lowered his second-day score to 76, while senior A.J. Straub fired a 79. Timmons, aided by four birdies, shaved nine strokes off his first-day score to card a 73.

Simone could not match his brilliant first-day pace but still shot a five-over 77 to give the Tartans a 305 for the final day and a 614 two-day total. Although the round ended with a disappointing fourth-place finish — 22 strokes behind the winner, the University of Rochester — the tournament’s excitement was just beginning.

After 36 holes, Simone was locked in a first-place tie with Rochester sophomore Stephen Goodridge, last year’s winner of the Phil Mickelson Award, the title given to the Division III first-year golfer of the year. The tie meant a playoff between Simone and Goodridge to determine the conference’s individual champion.

On the playoff’s first hole, Simone found himself faced with an extremely difficult bunker shot. Needing to keep pace with Goodridge, Simone remained in the hunt with an amazing maneuver on the par-five 18th hole.

“I basically had to get down on my right knee, extend my left like kind of behind me, choke up as much as possible, and basically hit the shot from my knees and just pop it out,” he said. “It was probably like the best shot I ever hit, especially under that kind of pressure. I popped it out, put it on the green to like 20, 25 feet.”

After Simone and Goodridge made pars on that hole, the two matched each other birdie for birdie on playoff holes two and three, then par for par on the fourth hole.

“It basically just turned into a dogfight, just who could survive longer,” Simone said. “It’s tiring enough to play 18 holes in a tournament when you’re concentrating for four straight hours — you’re walking, you’re carrying your bag, you’re trying to steer your ball around a course which is pretty tight, pretty difficult. After like the third hole we were both fairly mentally exhausted.”

By sinking a bogey on the par-three fifth playoff hole, Simone prevailed and won the second individual conference title in school history.

“He’s been a great kid for the team. He’s been a great player for us, and one of the probably greatest players ever here at Carnegie Mellon,” said Erdelyi.

Erdelyi and who assistant coach Joe Rudman won conference co-coaching staff of the year honors. “It was just a great way to cap a career.”

Simone, who was named to the All-conference first team, realized the significance of the win. “It’s a special feeling especially being a senior in probably my last tournament.”

The Tartans had been flirting with a spot in the national tournament all spring season, but the fourth-place finish will most likely deny the team a spot in the post-season.

However, based on the experience the younger players gained and the depth of next year’s roster, the future remains bright for Carnegie Mellon’s golf program despite losing the strong play and leadership of seniors Simone and Straub.

“I think this program is going in the right direction,” Smith said. “We have a solid nucleus coming back, and I think we can be just as good if not better next year.”