Four years after nearly winning national title at Auburn, Brandon Mancheno returns to NCAA Championship as key member of North Florida’s team

·13 min read

Brandon Mancheno was the cat’s meow for Auburn in his first two seasons.

Visions of PGA Tour stardom weren’t far-fetched.

“He’s going to be out here very shortly,” former Auburn player Blayne Barber said of Mancheno while hitting balls on the range at the Sea Island Club during the week of the 2019 RSM Classic. “He’s that good.”

But after leading the Tigers to the 2018 SEC title, losing in a playoff for the NCAA individual championship and becoming one of the most feared college players in match play, Mancheno inexplicably lost his tee shot and his confidence, returning home to Jacksonville two years later not knowing where to turn.

“I couldn’t get off the tee and I was missing both ways,” said the 2016 Class 3A state individual champion in the state of Florida. “And if you can’t get off the tee, you can’t do much else. I lost a lot of confidence. I just wasn’t myself.”

But with the support of his family, a new set of teammates and the Hilton Head, South Carolina, teaching professional who spotted one key flaw in Mancheno’s swing, there is a happy ending brewing.

It began in New Haven, Connecticut, 1,012 miles from Jacksonville earlier this month and it might continue this week in Scottsdale, Arizona, 2,045 miles away.

Mancheno, now a senior at the University of North Florida, is one of the Ospreys’ post-season starters in the NCAA tournament, four years after he nearly won it with Auburn at Karsten Creek in Stillwater, Oklahoma.

Mancheno helped UNF tie for third at the Yale Golf Course to qualify for the championship at the Grayhawk Golf Club and now he’s closing out his college golf career at a tournament he never thought he’d play again.

Mancheno, along with teammates Nick Gabrelcik, Robbie Higgins, Davis Lee and Cody Carroll will begin the stroke-play phase of the NCAA Championship on Friday, UNF’s sixth appearance in the 30-team field under coach Scott Schroeder and first since 2019.

Schroeder saw good signs

The usual suspects are in the desert this week: defending champion Pepperdine and traditional powers Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, Alabama, Texas, Florida, Arizona State, Wake Forest and Arizona.

Mancheno no doubt has bumped into some of his former Auburn teammates since the Tigers are also in the field.

Schroeder said he might be taking a chance letting it ride with Mancheno in the national finals after he tied for 73rd and struggled to shoot 20-over at the Augusta Haskins Invitational in April, only his third start of the season.

But Schroeder has seen Mancheno gradually improve and put up some promising scores: a final-round 70 in the General Hackler Invitational; a second-round 69 in The Hayt, playing as an individual, matching the day’s low score when the winds at the Sawgrass Country Club kicked up; and a deceptive 77 in the final round of the Haskins Invitational, after posting opening scores of 80-79 and weathering a mid-round double bogey to par his last four holes.

When ASUN Freshman of the Year Jason Duff became ill, Schroeder started Mancheno in New Haven. His response was to throw up a bogey-free 65, matching his career-low in college (including his three years at Auburn), tying a UNF record at an NCAA regional and tying for second in the tournament.

Mancheno’s day led the Ospreys to a tie for first after the first round and they stayed comfortably above the cut line for the top five to reach the main draw of the championship.

Mancheno’s putting stroke deserted him in the next two rounds and he posted scores of 72-75 to finish in a tie for 31st. But Schroeder said Mancheno’s opening round served its purpose on several levels.

“That 65 was huge for us, and it showed the potential we have as a team in the tournament, with him playing well,” Schroeder said. “It gave the rest of the guys a positive vibe. They’ve seen him playing better and getting more comfortable and they know the kind of experience he brings to this. It was a no-brainer to keep giving him opportunities. We need difference-making rounds.”

For Mancheno, it made all the difference where it counts — upstairs.

“I was excited to start and hopefully bring a little knowledge of what it’s like to play in an NCAA to the guys,” Mancheno said. “It felt pretty good. I didn’t putt well the last two days but I kept hitting it pretty good and it just added a little more to my confidence.”

Storming the SEC

Four years ago, Mancheno had confidence to spare on The Plains.

After a dazzling junior, high school and amateur career in which he added victories in the inaugural First Coast Amateur and the St. Augustine Amateur to his 3A state title, Mancheno headed for SEC country to play for Nick Clinard at Auburn.

It didn’t take long for him to make an impact.

Mancheno’s 70.6 stroke average was second in the nation among freshmen and is still the second-best single-season mark for the Tigers; he finished among the top-10 seven times and won twice; and for good measure tossed in a third-place finish to help Auburn win The Hayt, at the Sawgrass Country Club.

Mancheno earned SEC Freshman of the Year honors; and tied for first in the NCAA tournament stroke play, losing to Broc Everett of Augusta in a playoff.

Finishing below Mancheno on the NCAA leaderboard that year were current world No. 1 and Masters champion Scottie Scheffler of Texas, PGA Tour winners Matthew Wolf and Viktor Hovland of Oklahoma State; and three other players currently plying their trade for Tour bucks, Doc Redman of Clemson, and Davis Riley and Lee Hodges of Alabama.

Mancheno had already proven their equal and then showed he had another gear. In two years at Auburn, he was 9-1 in the SEC and NCAA match-play finals, never sweating a tee shot on the 18th hole in eight of his victories.

Mancheno went 3-0 in the 2018 SEC tournament to lead Auburn to the SEC championship, then went 3-0 again in 2019 when the Tigers finished second to Arkansas.

In those three 2019 matches at the Sea Island Seaside Course, Mancheno needed only 40 of a possible 54 holes to dust off his opponents, winning 5 and 4 and twice at 6 and 5. He won 21 holes to his opponents’ seven and shot a cumulative 14-under.

The accolades poured in: semifinalist for Jack Nicklaus Player of the Year, Golf Coaches Association of America All-Freshman team; second-team PING All-American, two-time PING All-Southeast Region and All-SEC team.

Mancheno looked like he was headed for the higher ground on the PGA Tour, along with contemporaries such as Scheffler, Hovland and Wolff.

Then, in the links version of “that’s racin’,” golf happened.

Wild off the tee

Mancheno had only seven starts in 2019-20 and Auburn’s season, along with everyone else’s in college spring sports in March of 2020, was canceled because of the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. He had only one top-10, the 12th of his career, and before sports came to a crashing halt, Mancheno had not done much to put an exclamation point on his first two seasons.

Worse, his once-reliable game off the tee began to desert him. And without competition (most amateur events were canceled in the spring and early summer) Mancheno found himself struggling more and more until he came to a decision.

Frustrated and confused, Mancheno decided to leave Auburn and return home to Jacksonville.

“I wanted to come home and be around family,” he said. “I wasn’t going through the best time. Golf gets lonely, especially when you aren’t playing well.”

He then swallowed his pride and asked Schroeder, who had dearly wanted Mancheno to play for the Ospreys before he signed with Auburn, if he could walk on in 2021 and see if there was something left of his game while he completed his college degree in political science.

“I wanted to be around guys I could trust,” Mancheno said. “I knew all of their guys and Scott is a great guy. I didn’t worry about playing time. I just wanted to be around a team and see what I could do if I earned a chance.”

Schroeder doesn’t mince words about what he saw when Mancheno began practicing with the team.

“I knew he had been struggling,” Schroeder said. “But it was worse than I realized. The ball was going everywhere you don’t want it to go. He was trying hard. But sometimes the harder you try; you still don’t make it. All I told him was to stay consistent. Do the same things every day and work on your short game and putting. That was still pretty good.”

Catching up to his body

Mancheno’s struggles continued in 2021 and he played in only one tournament, getting an individual start in The Hayt. He began well enough, with a 68 in the first round, then shot 77-76 and tied for 32nd.

But beyond that it was practice and walking courses during tournaments, trying to encourage his teammates. Mancheno had no expectations that he was going to crack a lineup that returned all but one starter for the 2022 spring season and had one of the nation’s best players at the top in Gabrelcik.

After the holidays, Mancheno’s father Robert called Tim Cooke, the director of instruction at the Sea Pines Resort. He heard good things about Cooke and his work with other college players such as his son’s former Auburn teammate, Trace Crowe, Bryson Nimmer of Clemson and Chris Baker, who is on the Korn Ferry Tour.

Cooke still remembers meeting Brandon for the first time: a dejected, lost player who didn’t seem to want to touch a driver any more than a coiled water moccasin.

“You could tell he was discouraged and a little gun-shy about the driver,” Cooke said. “He did a good job of telling me what his misses were and he was very honest about his lack of confidence.”

When he got Mancheno to hit a few tee shots, his once-reliable draw was starting too far right, then snapping off the planet.

Cooke said it was all in his setup and his pivot going back.

“It was pretty obvious from a setup perspective and how his body moved,” Cooke said. “He was producing inconsistent clubface delivery at impact.”

Cooke also saw something that happens frequently with junior players as they get to college – especially when they reach a top-flight program such as Auburn or UNF where weight facilities and strength and conditioning coaches are available for the first time on a daily basis.

Plus, some of them still have some growing to do.

“He was physically stronger than he was as a junior player,” Cooke said. “I’ve seen this a lot. If their swing and body pivot don’t adapt to their newfound strength, they start hitting it sideways.”

Cooke said it took him about an hour to get Mancheno to load his trail leg and trail hip to support his upper body more, so he could transition to his lead side more consistently.

“Before, at impact, his upper body was backing up and hanging back so much that the clubface was way too inconsistent.”

Mancheno noticed the difference before their first session was over.

“Tim did a really good job helping me,” he said. “He fixed my pivot with the way I was setting up and it freed me up on the way back and the way back down.”

Now, it was a matter of doing it under pressure.

Waiting for the chance

Mancheno sat out the first six tournaments of the 2021-22 season but Schroeder grew less and less hesitant to use him as he watched his practice sessions.

“He was playing better,” Schroeder said. “So we threw him in the Hackler and he showed some positives, showed some flashes. He played okay at The Hayt but the Haskins was not a good stretch for him.”

Still, when Duff became ill, Schroeder stuck Mancheno in the lineup for the NCAA regional.

Mancheno didn’t make him regret it.

It wasn’t so much the score Mancheno shot but the attitude. He has quietly coached his teammates up on the grind of the 54-hole regionals, and now the task at hand: 54 holes to make the top-15 team cut, then another 18 to finish among the final eight and make match play for a chance at the national championship.

“He brings a really good golf IQ to this team,” Schroeder said. “He’s good for the other guys. He’s matured a lot in the last five years.”

Mancheno said he’s tried to give his teammates a sense of urgency.

“In the NCAA you have to treat every shot like it really matters,” he said. “I think we’re doing a good job of putting the team before ourselves as individuals.”

Schroeder, a golf guy to the core, doesn’t like to think beyond the next shot, nor does he want his players in a mode of looking ahead.

But he doesn’t mind speculating on his team’s chances if they can pull off what he said “a puncher’s chance” and get into the match-play phase: where he will have Gabrelcik, a U.S. Amateur semifinalist last year, Higgins, last year’s Florida Match Play champion and a quarterfinalist at the U.S. Junior Boys, and Mancheno, who has as stout a college match play record as anyone in the field.

“Nick and Robbie had great summers in match play last year and every guy on our team knows what Brandon can do in that format,” Schroeder said. “We’re swinging for the fences here. We’re not trying to be pretty good. And if we get to match play, Brandon will bring an expectation of being great.”

Mancheno said Schroeder hasn’t broached that subject directly to him. But he’s ready if the Ospreys get the chance.

“Scott hasn’t mentioned anything about the match play to me but it might be part of the reason I’m here,” he said. “He has reasons for everything he does.”

Whatever happens, Mancheno will be leaving UNF with a college degree and the satisfaction of knowing that he got one more chance on a national stage.

“He had the best academic semester of his college career and got a degree,” Schroeder said. “That shows his maturity. He fought through the golf stuff, came back and graduated.”

Cooke said Mancheno’s future in professional golf might be a case of learning from both success and adversity.

“The pro game is tough,” he said. “There’s a lot of blood, sweat and tears to get to the PGA Tour but he’s performed at the highest level and he’s also struggled, then come back. There are lessons both ways. I like his chances.”