GREENWOOD – Coach Chipper Bagwell said the 2012 Lander men's golf team reminds him of the program's first squad of 2005-06, a group of all freshmen who had up-and-down success that year. But the comparison is actually a compliment when one considers how fast that team rose to prominence.
In just the program's second year since its re-birth (Lander's last golf team played in 1979), that group of freshmen, now sophomores, and three new freshmen reached the 2007 NCAA Championships and placed 14th in the nation.
In year three, the Bearcats competed in the NCAA Regionals and fell one stroke shy of another trip to the 16-team NCAA Championships.
Year four saw Lander climbed to No. 4 in the national poll.
In year seven, the Bearcats are trying to get back to the levels of those first few teams.
"This team reminds me of the first team that I ever had, but this year's team is better," Bagwell said. "That first team had six freshmen (Billy Belair, David Connor, Brian Cote', Justin Gupton, Cooper Tinsley and Mark Vanadia) and they were up and down.
"We kind of cut our teeth (in 2005-06) and built a foundation, and the next year we brought in a good group (Jake Amos, Charlie Hoyle and Patrick Wilson) and we went all the way to the NCAA Championships. This team reminds me of that team."
The 2012 squad includes juniors Chad Siefert (Simpsonville, S.C.) and Tanner Robb (Liberty Lake, Wash.), sophomore Tucker Nelson (Greenwood, S.C.), and freshmen Danny Clark (Bergheim, Germany), Neal Todd (Laurens, S.C.) and Oliver Van Nairn (Middlesex, England).
These Bearcats kicked off their spring season last week, finishing 15th at the two-day, three-round Matlock Collegiate Classic hosted by Florida Southern College in Lakeland, Fla.
Siefert tied for 39th with a 9-over-par 225 (71-79-75), Van Nairn tied for 55th at 230 (80-75-75), Robb tied for 61st at 232 (79-73-80), Todd finished 73rd at 238 (82-73-83), and Nelson was 75th at 240 (73-83-84).
Lander placed as high as sixth in team competition in the fall, reaching that height at Clayton State back in October.
The Bearcats' next tournament is Feb. 20-21 at the Pirate Invitational in Savannah, Ga.
One big difference from the 2005-06 team is the current edition does have two juniors who are serving as leaders.
Siefert's work with D1 Sports Training and Therapy has brought a lot to the program.
"Chad's brother (Zack) played at Clemson. Chad had a good junior career. When Chad first got here, we had a team that was ranked seventh in the country and there wasn't any place (in the lineup) for him to play. He had to wait," Bagwell said.
"Last year, he got into the lineup quite a bit. This year, he has been in the lineup every week and shot an under par round in this last tournament down in Florida. He has really worked hard and has helped us with our conditioning program so much."
D1 trains many athletes, including professional golfers.
"A lot of the Clemson golfers go there," Bagwell said. "The program is adopted specifically for golfers. We have adopted a lot of their ideas and it has really helped our team. We run two days a week and lift two days a week (lighter weights, more repetitions) where we can be strong and flexible."
Robb came to Lander from across the country in Washington and was found at Hilton Head's Heritage Academy, where Bagwell also discovered former players Hoyle, Davis Lee and Roberto Nasalli-Rocca. Robb twice shot under par rounds during the fall, including a round of 70 at the AFLAC/Cougar Invitational in Columbus, Ga.
"Tanner has really improved his game," Bagwell said. "He has gotten so much stronger and has done a great job improving his fitness. He has improved more than anybody that I have ever had in the program from where he was when we signed him to where he is now. He is as good a student-athlete as we have ever had."
The team's sophomore is a former place-kicker at Greenwood High School and the University of Tennessee-Martin.
"He was playing golf out somewhere (at a local course) and he came by to see me," Bagwell said of Nelson quitting football. "We had a couple of kids who left us and we needed a couple more players. I said, 'yea, come on out.' He has worked hard and is going to add something to our program. His first tournament was last week and he shot a 73 his first time out."
Bagwell has high expectations for Van Nairn and Todd.
"Ollie (Van Nairn) has probably improved better than anybody we've had this season," the coach said. "He came in to visit last year. We liked his swing. He is from England but his mother lives in Virginia. He has dual citizenship. He grew up in London but spent summers over here playing junior golf. He had some good results there (in junior golf)."
Bagwell said Van Nairn needed to get stronger and has.
"He is small framed. We really worked him (in the weight program) and his driving has probably increased 25 yards or better, and he has a brilliant short game. He has turned in some good scores for us. I visualize him being an All-Conference player in two or three years."
Todd comes from a golfing family. His father Walter Todd is a well-known amateur player in South Carolina, and his brother Walt Todd currently plays on the Winthrop University golf team.
"Neal Todd is a local young man from Laurens. He comes from a real good golfing family," Bagwell said. "He has a lot of ability and talent. He is a big, strong kid who can hit it a long way. He works hard and wants to be a good player. By the time he's a junior, he is going to be an All-Conference player."
The third freshman is Clark.
"Danny Clark comes from Germany and had a good junior career, and won some tournaments over there," Bagwell said. "His game is a little raw right now. He's got a little ways to go. But he is working hard. His dad is a pro over there and helps him a lot."
The Bearcats have been rebuilding after losing so many strong players the last couple years, especially losing Nasalli-Rocca to graduation and 2011 Peach Belt Conference Freshman of the Year Max Fischer who decided to return to Germany.
"We will have some ups and downs this year, but I think before the year is out we will see some bright spots," Bagwell said. "We might surprise some people toward the end of this year."
Among the tournaments this spring is the third annual Bearcat Classic to be played March 26-27 at Greenwood Country Club.
"We have a full field of 18 teams," Bagwell said. "We will have a lot of Peach Belt teams, a lot of top 25 teams, so there will be a lot of competition. We will be at Greenwood Country Club and those greens are perfect right now. All the teams like playing at the Country Club and that's why we get a good return every year. We are looking forward to that."
Among the teams competing in the Bearcat Invitational will be the nation's current No. 10 team and Peach Belt member Georgia Southwestern as well as PBC teams No. 16 Georgia College & State, No. 20 Armstrong Atlantic, Clayton State, Flagler, Montevallo, Columbus State, North Georgia and USC Aiken. Also in the tournament are No. 24 Belmont Abbey and Queens.
"It will be a strong field," Bagwell said. "If people want to see some good golf, we encourage them to come on out."
The Peach Belt Tournament will be played April 9-10 at Calloway Gardens in Georgia.