The Texas Tech men’s golf team lost a ton of talent in the last couple of years, both expected and unexpected. Clement Sordet played in the British Open last year, Matias Dominguez made the Masters the year before and Guillermo Pereira, after a one-and-done season at Tech, has made the Web.com Tour at age 21.
Shed no tears for Greg Sands, though. The Red Raiders, coming off what Sands calls the most impressive regular-season tournament title of his 17-year Tech coaching career, have soared to No. 5 and No. 6 in two major rankings.
As for replacing talent with talent, well, newcomer Fredrik Nihlen needed only four tournaments to become the ninth Tech men’s golfer all-time with at least two career victories.
“The good thing with golf,” Sands said, “is there always seems to be good players if you work hard enough recruiting.”
Tech is set to play two tournaments back-to-back in the coming week at Palm Springs, California: the Desert Classic from Friday through Sunday at Classic Club and The Prestige from Monday through Wednesday at PGA West.
Nilehn has been sick and might not play this weekend, a Tech spokesman said Thursday.
Two weeks ago, the Red Raiders went to Hawaii and won the Amer Ari Collegiate, beating a loaded field with five opponents ranked in the top 12 and another five ranked inside the top 40.
Sands, whose teams have won 18 tournaments, noted it’s more important to win in the postseason but, “The field in Hawaii had a lot more teams in the top 10 than a regional field would, so from that standpoint — from a strength of field and depth of field — it’s probably the best win I’ve ever had. That was almost like an NCAA finals field.”
Aside from merely beating such heavyweights as Oklahoma State, Southern Cal, Stanford, Texas and Auburn, the Red Raiders shot 44 under par and won by eight strokes. The seven players Tech entered played 21 rounds: 16 under-par, two even-par and three 1-over. Nihlen won tournament medalist, and Federico Zucchetti, Hannes Ronneblad and Ivan Ramirez also were top-15 individually.
“I knew if we all played well, we could certainly win the tournament,” Sands said. “The thing that surprised me more than anything is the number of shots we won by. But I think that’s a good thing, because I think if you asked each kid, it may have surprised them, too.
“I think we’ve all realized how good we can be, and because of that it’s given us confidence to push forward, set the bar higher and work harder to even get better.”
Tech made the NCAA Championship finals field in 2015, then lost a big chunk of the team: Sordet, the Frenchman who earned second-team all-America and won five individual tournament titles as a Red Raider, and three South Americans: Dominguez, Esteban Restrepo and Pereira. Sordet, Dominguez and Restrepo were seniors, but Pereira, who at one point was in the top 10 of the World Amateur Golf Ranking, turned pro after his freshman year.
“I felt like when he (Pereira) came, we were looking at a two- to three-year thing,” Sands said. “I was surprised he only stayed one, but from that aspect we were able to plan accordingly anyway. So we weren’t really caught too far off-guard, but at the same time we did get really fortunate to get a couple of transfers.
“We’ve got three transfers in the top five right now. Any time that happens, you’ve got to feel a little bit fortunate that, one, you had the scholarship (available) to get that done and, two, that there were those type of players.”
After the 2015 season, Tech added native German Hurly Long, who transferred from Oregon, and native Italian Zucchetti, who transferred from Central Florida. This past offseason, the Red Raiders added Sweden native Nihlen, who transferred from Kennesaw State, where he was a two-time second-team all-conference honoree.
“Usually, a transfer may have a little bit of baggage,” Sands said. “Those kids didn’t. They were good kids and transferred for different reasons, but (they) stepped in and played significant already. We got a little lucky, but we also worked hard recruiting them. It wasn’t easy to get them. So I feel like we recovered pretty quickly from that.”
Sands said Nilehn “wasn’t necessarily happy with the culture of the team” at Kennesaw State, and coach Jay Moseley’s leaving to become head coach at Ohio State was another factor that put him back on the market.
Nilehn debuted with Tech in September, winning the Carmel Cup at Pebble Beach. He won a playoff for his victory in Hawaii. Sands said Nilehn is a good athlete — also the best table tennis player on the team — and better under pressure.
“He wasn’t, in my mind, playing as well leading up to the event as he did when he won it,” Sands said, “so when he’s out messing around, he doesn’t overwhelm you. But when he gets focused and gets under pressure, he seems to hit better golf shots and make key putts and do some things that you maybe don’t see on a day-to-day basis.”