It's difficult to know much about a team — even if it's your team — until competition starts. Given that, the past two weeks have been loaded with discovery for Ryan Blagg.
Blagg assumed the head coaching role at Louisville in May after longtime coach Mark Crabtree retired after 21 seasons. A pandemic is an odd time to change jobs and by the time Blagg took over the role, college golf had already been silent two months. The ACC didn't compete in the fall, either.
Many college teams still haven't competed yet this spring, but Louisville's men already have two tournaments under their belt. Blagg's eyes have been wide open.
"I learned more about them those two weeks than I did the entire fall," Blagg said of starts at the Seminole Intercollegiate at Camp Creek and the Southwestern Invitational.
"You learn so much about your team in a tournament format, just getting to see them under pressure and walking with them. Just getting to see their strengths and weaknesses and learn them better."
For those who don't know the story, Louisville was the last team into the Southwestern, a Golf Channel-televised event at North Ranch Country Club in Westlake Village, California. Louisville had just wrapped the all-ACC Seminole tournament near Destin, Florida.
Blagg's men had been home a day and were ready to ship out Phoenix for a spring-training trip the next day. Blagg got a call from Southwestern host Michael Beard, Pepperdine's head men's golf coach, at 7:30 p.m., the night before his team was supposed to leave.
"Hey, can you make this work?" Beard asked.
The hurdle was in COVID testing. Blagg's athletic department helped him wade through the red tape and Beard helped expedite the COVID attestation process. It all fell into place, and Louisville still got in a round at Grayhawk Golf Club, site of this spring's NCAA Championship, plus a round at Papago Golf Course across town before arriving at North Ranch.
"We had to have some luck go along our way making sure we tested negative," Blagg said.
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Louisville entered the Southwestern off an eighth-place finish at Camp Creek. The Cardinals couldn't get it under par until the final round, when they went 11 under and had the low round of the day.
"We were just too little, too late and so I was thinking we would play well (at the Southwestern)," Blagg said. "I honestly thought we would go out there and have a chance to compete to win the golf tournament. That we would probably be in contention and see what we could do from there."
The Cardinals put up opening rounds of 8 over and 5 under, good to remain in contention. Then Blagg looked at the forecast and saw bad weather rolling in. That would bode well for Blagg's men, and ultimately they kept pace in a brutal final round to finish fourth overall at 21 over (11 back of winner San Diego State).
"Not every golfer has that in their bag — that grind and that grit," Blagg said. "When things get tough, they don't fight back. And our guys do that. I thought it would be good for us and it was right."
Matthias Schmid, a senior from Germany who owns two European Amateur titles, garnered plenty of time in front of the cameras for Louisville. Schmid ultimately finished in a tie for third, with senior teammate John Murphy right behind him in a tie for 16th.
Schmid returns with a formidable resume. He led the country in birdies as a sophomore and has earned All-America honors the past two seasons. Blagg is still learning his game, but sees a bag full of tools. He'll often stand on a par 3 and watch others who can't hit the ball as far as Schmid take longer clubs into the green. Schmid will come in with more club and flight the ball down.
"He's not just this long ball hitter," Blagg said. "He's got a lot of gears."
Blagg spent the past seven years as the assistant coach at Baylor. This season is different not just for his new role, but because of the way COVID impacts all of athletics. There are no team outings. Depending on the state in which a tournament is played, a team can sometimes huddle in a deserted corner of a hotel to eat to-go dinners. That was the case in Florida, but not allowed in California.
"Although you do spend a lot of time talking at dinner, I found this refreshing," Blagg said. "I think the guys are getting more rest now. Because the coaches are going to get the take-out food, the guys can relax at the hotel, we bring it to them."
Still, a steak dinner isn't quite the same in a box.
This season isn't likely to get any less weird any time soon. Blagg felt his nerves tested already as he awaited negative COVID results from his players. Having already traveled to Arizona, it would have been difficult to get a player back home should he test positive for COVID.
"When I got that call saying we tested negative, that was huge," he said.
And so the season moves onward for Louisville.
This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: How Louisville men's golf converted last-minute opportunity to a top-5