Golfers hope to advance from Alpharetta

Ole Miss men's golf will be in its fifth NCAA Tournament ever beginning Thursday in suburban Atlanta. But when Ernest Ross came back to lead the Rebels again, making the postseason field was inevitable.

It took some time but not much. This is Ross' third year; his second tenure with the program. The first time around from 1979 and for nearly a decade, he led the Rebs to new heights. Twice they made the NCAA field, almost winning it all but finishing fourth in 1985. Since he left in 1988, they've only been back twice, the last time in 2001.

When it was announced that the former Rebel golfer and Ole Miss alum was returning in the summer of 2004, the program had life again. No disrespect to any in the interim, but the Rebs are playing more golf this season because of his return.

And also because of a talented and committed group of Rebel student-athletes, a golf team that has bonded and believes and plays as one.

There are nine of them on the roster, less than in most years, and only five travel to a tournament. Golf as a team sport is a small fraternity of guys who have been playing the game since their youth and who've made it to the highest level of play so far - the college game.

I sat with Ernest in the lobby of the Whitten Golf Center, the home of Ole Miss golf, earlier this week. Brice Bailey, who had been practicing, joined us. Brice, a Memphian whose dad played golf at the University of Memphis and grandfather at North Carolina, had only one thing on his mind now that final exams were over. He wanted to improve his play from the SEC Tournament three weeks earlier.

Of the five Rebels who played, Brice's scores were fifth. He knows he needs to lift those scores for the Rebels to meet their goal - to advance to the NCAA Championships in Williamsburg, Va. The field in the East Regional at Alpharetta, Ga., has 27 teams. The top 10 advance. There are two other Regionals - Central and West. Ten advance from each.

"It's getting better," said Bailey, a senior who has only been on the Ole Miss golf team for three years, since Ross has been here. "I've been talking to people who know my game well, my coaches, my dad, my teacher in Memphis. There was some stuff I was doing wrong. I'm feeling better about things now."

Bailey admits he has to take that improvement and confidence to the course at the Golf Club of Georgia Thursday through Saturday.

Ross has a good story about how Bailey became a Rebel golfer. Brice had tried out for two years and wasn't chosen for the squad. After three semesters at Ole Miss, he went to the David Ledbetter Academy in Florida. He was discovered by some other colleges, but he really wanted to return to Ole Miss.

"I knew I wanted to come back here, but I had a pretty tough decision to make," he said.

Before Ross came "home" to coach after several years as pro at the Country Club of Jackson, he got a phone call.

"We had a mutual friend, a guy who played college golf with me here named Ed Barnett," Ross said. "He heard I might be coaching here again. He called and said he knew somebody I needed to take a look at."

It was Brice Bailey.

"I said, 'Ed, I haven't even interviewed for the job yet, but if it happens, I'll come right on up there and see him.' So that's what happened. I got hired July 1, 2004, and not long after, I headed to Memphis."

He drove to Memphis Country Club in midtown and went to the range where Bailey was hitting balls. Ross inherited a huge roster of Rebs that summer. It didn't take him long to add one more.

"I think we had 22 on the team when I got here. I saw Brice hit three balls and I said, 'You've got a spot on the team.' And that was that."

Now nearly three years later, Bailey is as happy as he can possibly be about the way things turned out.

"A lot of guys on tour say the most fun they had was in college golf," said Bailey, an honor roll business graduate who hopes to play golf for a living. "I haven't played that well this year, but this has been so much fun. The personalities of all the guys have really come together as a team. I enjoy this team. We're doing what we like around people that we like. It's all very positive."

They were a team that had some meshing to do, if for no other reason than their backgrounds were diverse. The five who finished fourth as a team in the SEC tourney, best for a Rebel golf team since 1988, are quite an assortment.

Bailey is the "local" one from just up the road, while fifth-year senior Chris Rogers might as well be considered local - all 129 pounds of him - hailing from Franklin, Tenn.

Then there's fifth-year senior Callum Macaulay, an All-SEC selection this season from Scotland; David Marino, a junior veteran from Rhode Island; and Will Roebuck, a talented sophomore from England.

While Bailey, Ross, and I visited at the Ole Miss golf course Monday afternoon, Rogers, Marino, and Roebuck were on their way back from Little Rock where they were trying to qualify for a national tournament. Macaulay was in flight from Ireland where he'd played a tournament over the weekend.

On Tuesday morning Ross and the Rebels teamed up again and boarded a UMAA van headed to Georgia with hopes of a top 10 finish. They believe that will happen. Ross preaches confidence. He knows how to get the best out of his players.

"We are really excited," he said. "I know I am and I know they are. We want to be the kind of program that goes to the NCAA every year. We believe we're a top 30 team this year, right there in the mix, one of the best teams in America."

That enthusiasm spills over to his players.

"This is as good as it gets," Brice Bailey said. "We're going to play for a national championship for our school, and with classes and exams over, we don't have to worry about anything but just playing golf."

No doubt there are a lot of people who would agree with him on that. That appears to be just about as good as it gets.

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