A picture still lives on Robbie Fields’ phone in which Fields, the head women’s golf coach and acting men’s coach at Jacksonville State University, stands behind a middle-school version of one of his current men’s players. The 26-year-old coach was a senior on the Hartselle (Alabama) High School golf team when senior Ross Napier was an eighth grader. The top of Napier’s head didn’t even reach Fields’ chin back then.
Needless to say, Fields is familiar with Napier’s game (and his family in general – Napier’s mother was Fields’ AP Environmental Science teacher). It seemed pretty poetic that Tuesday, in the final round of the 2022 Golfweek Fall Challenge at True Blue Golf Club in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, Napier broke 70 for the first time as a collegian.
“He’s a guy who plays consistent golf, his short game is unbelievable and now he’s starting to strike the ball really well,” Fields noted.
For the most part, Fields was across the street at Caledonia Golf Club coaching the Gamecock women’s team (the men’s and women’s events run concurrently during the Golfweek Fall Challenge). He walked the par-5 ninth hole with Napier in the second round and watched Napier make double-bogey there.
“I told him I’d take the blame for messing him up,” Fields laughed.
It was a minor blip, though, because Jacksonville State won the event by two strokes over Wright State after reaching 28 under for 54 holes. Napier tied for seventh with teammate Eric Jansson when both finished the tournament at 7 under. Ultimately, Ryley Heath, a transfer from Calhoun Community College, dropped 30-foot birdie putts on Nos. 16 and 17 in the fall round to help the Gamecocks stay two shots about Wright State. Heath was T-3 individually at 11 under.
Coastal Carolina’s Trey Crenshaw won the individual title at 18 under, five shots better than Wright State’s Tyler Goecke.
Coastal Carolina’s Trey Crenshaw holds the trophy after winning the individual title at the 2022 Golfweek Fall Challenge at True Blue Golf Club in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
There are old ties there for Fields, too. Heath also attended Hartselle High School, and Fields has known him since he was 8 years old. The clutch performance came as no surprise.
“It’s not that he was a surprise because he had a great summer, he’s playing some really great golf and it’s almost like he’s unphased,” Fields said. “I wouldn’t always tell somebody at that moment where we stood as a team … but he’s one where nothing really bothers him.”
Despite the familiar faces, Fields is very much in new territory. Three weeks into his new job as head women’s golf coach, he was promoted to acting men’s coach, replacing James Hobbs, a Gamecock institution. Now he’s juggling two rosters and 20 players. Patricio Freundt-Thurne, who graduated last season after four years playing for the now-retired Hobbs, stayed on as a men’s assistant and helped the Gamecocks navigate True Blue.
Asked what he expects his future holds at Jacksonville State, Fields says he is sticking with the women – despite the fact that the men’s team is advocating for him to remain in their orbit, too.
“The way that I want to do things and the attention that I want to show the players, it’s just not really easy to do with 20 players,” Fields said. “I’ve told them I’m happy to be helping them. The guys have made it really hard to not give them as much attention as I’m trying to give the girls because they’ve been so awesome. I told them I’m going to do everything I can for you now but I really want them to be able to have somebody to give them a lot of attention.”
Despite feeling as if his attention is split in too many directions, Fields can talk in-depth about every player in his lineup at True Blue. Jansson, he explains, they call The Machine for his day-in, day-out work ethic. Gabriel Restrepo, who finished T-25 individually and was the fourth counting Gamecock score, played through illness the first two rounds before breaking 70 on the final day.
“We’ve got seven guys at home that at any given day could step into the lineup and do the same thing we did this week,” he said. “That kind of competition is good for the team. The lineup, because I’m not with them as much for their qualifying, the lineup is pretty much going to be based on scores and qualifying. The lineup is probably going to be pretty different throughout the year just because there’s so much competition. I think any given day they’re going to go out and compete.”
Before winning the Golfweek Fall Challenge, Jacksonville State hadn’t won a team title since the Bash at the Beach in March 2021. Runner-up Wright State couldn’t have a different story, however.
After winning their season opener at Ball State, their 10th team title in their last 14 starts, the Raiders came up two shots short at True Blue. Wright State led the field in birdies but ultimately, head coach Conner Lash said, the tournament came down to True Blue’s closing gauntlet. The Raiders made too many big numbers on 16, 17 and 18.
It can be tough to battle big expectations, Lash said, but the team is pretty good at taking things one shot at a time.
“You take the positives from the year before, we had a lot of success and I think we had a lot of confidence coming into this year and the guys were playing good golf over the summer so I think we just kind of rode the momentum and the confidence,” he said. “We won last week, got second this week so there’s still a lot of positives, lot of momentum we can take.”