Two decades after its last appearance in the NCAA Tournament, the University of Arkansas-Little Rock men’s golf team had its defining moment last May.
The Trojans played their last five holes at par 7 under. All five golfers birdied the par-5 18th hole at Karsten Creek Golf Club. UALR edged out Auburn, Baylor and Notre Dame to advance from the NCAA Stillwater (Okla.) Regional.
For the first time in program history, UALR would get a chance to play for a national title.
The chill lasted 11 days.
“It sucks that we finished last, I’m not going to lie,” senior Marcel Rauch said of the Trojans’ performance at the 2021 NCAA Division I Championship.
Of the 30 teams that played Grayhawk Golf Club in Scottsdale, Arizona, the Trojans finished 30th. UALR, at 65 over par, missed the final round of stroke play by 33 strokes, and the next closest team was 56 over.
Was there any pride in being one of 10 teams outside of power conferences to reach the final event of the season? Undoubtedly.
But the frustration of those three days lingered with coach Jake Harrington long into the summer.
“We want to be there,” Harrington said. “But we don’t need a participation trophy. That’s not our point.”
The Trojans expect an opportunity to redeem themselves at Grayhawk later this month. That, however, will require going through the Palm Beach Gardens Regional at PGA National in South Florida, starting Monday morning.
UALR wants it all to feel normal — a perennial top-50 program after being ranked 210th as recently as 2013, an All-American-caliber player, chances to consistently beat the best in the country.
It takes more than one good season.
“One of the hardest things is to be very successful when you haven’t been very successful in recent history,” Harrington said. “Sometimes you’re like, ‘Man, we got it all done last year. We did not do it.”
Anton Albers remembers the holidays well. He had traveled with his grandparents from his hometown of Buchholz – in the northwestern part of Germany between Cologne and Frankfurt – to the Bavaria region in southeastern Germany.
The idea was that Albers would spend the mornings with his grandmother, Witha, while his grandfather, Klaus, would go out golfing with a few of his friends.
On the third day, Albers was bored. He wanted to join Klaus and see the connections for himself.
Albers’ grandparents tried to convince 5-year-old Anton otherwise, explaining that 18 holes of golf could take several hours. Albers does not recall his rebuttal, but he has recalled it several times since.
“My response was, ‘Well, I’m in kindergarten five hours a day, so that’s fine’, https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2022/may/15/returning-to-ncaa -regionals -ualr-mens-golf-is/,” Albers said with a laugh.
Klaus booked a lesson for his grandson the next day and golf has since consumed Albers’ life. He split his time between golf and soccer until he was 13, but he gave up the latter and didn’t start playing national golf tournaments until a year later.
It was around the time Albers first crossed paths with Rauch, who lived about 400 miles east of the capital Berlin.
Neither had a clue when they would find themselves roommates years later at UALR. Albers cracked up that he probably didn’t even know Arkansas existed.
Harrington had already planted the seed.
As coach of the United States Junior National Team in 2013 – just before taking charge of the Trojans – Harrington connected with his German counterpart at the Toyota Junior World Cup of Golf in Japan. Their friendship grew over time until early 2017 when Rauch was finishing his senior year of high school.
The two communicated and Rauch, who had only been to Florida on a previous trip to the United States, crossed the Atlantic for a visit. Within 12 hours—after seeing UALR’s classes and meeting Harrington—Rauch was convinced.
It was the start of an international bonanza for Harrington. He has since brought three other Germans to Little Rock, including Albers, as well as natives of Denmark, Northern Ireland, England and South Africa, developing a program that enters this post-season ranked 45th from the country.
“When you recruit American kids, they often turn you down because you don’t have football,” Harrington said. “I said to my boosters, to my administration here, let me build a top 50 program and then American kids will want to come here because this is a golf school.”
Trojans believe they can compete with brand schools because they have.
In the Bahamas in October, they finished a shot ahead of a South Florida team they will see again this week. At Stanford’s Goodwin in March, they finished six strokes behind No. 16 Cardinal and tied with No. 11 Georgia Tech.
It also helps to have a player like Albers, who enters the NCAA Tournament ranked 32nd nationally — only three non-power conference players have been better this season.
Harrington says Albers, named Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year earlier this month, is the best pound-for-pound player he’s ever coached.
The rest of the UALR team is not far behind. Rauch and Magnus Lomholt both posted sub-74 stroke averages this season and were starters on last year’s team. The Trojans added transfer Jansen Smith from Texas Tech, who almost reached the match-play portion of the 2021 national championship
Having already won a Sun Belt Tournament title, UALR has what it takes to continue improving on the program’s best season from a year ago.
“I don’t think Coach Harrington as a coach has changed much, but I feel like he’s done a great job of bringing in the right people,” Rauch said. “I’m not necessarily talking about signing great players. I’m talking more about signing people who fit into the environment and form a great team.”
Albers, who has professional ambitions, has one more year of eligibility. The rest of the Trojan lineup – except for Rauch – will also return.
Harrington credits this week as “the icing on the cake” to a successful season. But missing another attempt at Grayhawk would also leave him empty.
“In golf, it’s hard to follow up a good game of golf with another good game of golf,” Harrington said. “Essentially, that’s what we’re trying to do.”