KNOXVILLE -- Former Baylor School golfer Jay Vandeventer has played The Honors Course about 20 times, and the freshman's University of Tennessee teammates have similar experience on southeastern Tennessee's amateur golfing jewel.
Mere weeks ago, the Volunteers traveled 90 miles down Interstate 75 and played practice rounds at the legendary Ooltewah course.
Getting back to the Chattanooga area for the June 1 NCAA championship tournament was a tougher task, though. The Vols traveled more than 2,200 miles last week to San Diego last week, where a third-place finish at the Southwest Regional secured Tennessee a championship spot for the fifth time in eight years.
"I guess you could say we know this next course better than the last one," Vandeventer said with a smile. "It was a good golf course (in San Diego), but we just didn't have enough time to learn the course, especially the greens.
"But we made it through, and that's all that matters."
Grins filled UT's practice facility on a sunny Tuesday afternoon. The Vols are seeded No. 24 out of 30 teams in the championship tournament, but it's no stretch to assume they know more about the Honors than any team in the field.
"I think it's a big advantage for us, as far as having a game plan and knowing what to do there," longtime UT coach Jim Kelson said. "We've got quite a bit of local knowledge. We've been able to play there a few times, and that was extremely helpful to us. It's also nice being in your back yard just from a travel standpoint and fan standpoint. Parents and girlfriends and everybody can just come on down. That's just terrific for us.
"It's a great place to play, and we're really excited about it. The Honors has been really great to our program for a long time and allowed us to come down there. We know some of the members, and it's just a fabulous place. Obviously it was a huge goals of ours to get down there this year, and now we're excited about making the most of it."
No one seemed more excited than Vandeventer, who finished seventh -- ahead of three UT teammates -- in the 2009 Tennessee State Amateur at the Honors.
"It's a good thing for us -- a great thing, actually," said Vandeventer, who had two counting scores in three days at the regional. "We've been all over the country all year, but this one means a lot to us. It's not necessarily our hometown, but it's really close, and we're the only Tennessee team in it. That means a lot to us. We're looking at it as kind of being the home team, in a way.
"I feel really good going into this, with how much I know the golf course and the whole atmosphere. I'll have a bunch of friends and family coming out to watch. A lot of my friends and coaches from Baylor should be there."
Beyond the feel-good, close-to-home angle, top UT golfer Robin Wingardh said the Honors plays to the Vols' strengths.
"It's an awesome course," said the junior from Sweden who hopes to win the individual national title. "I really like that course, and I think our whole team has a good feel about it. We've been down there a lot, and I just really have a good feeling going down there. I think we're going to do really well.
"The biggest advantage to me is just that this course really suits our game. It's pretty long, and it's kind of tight. It requires good ball-striking, and that's an advantage for us."
Kelson and Wingardh noted Vandeventer's help in getting the Vols to this point. He's not typically been their top scorer, but he's been a big part of the process and should only improve with time.
"He was the biggest U.S. recruit that I've ever landed in my career, in terms of his national rank and where he stood within the system nationally," Kelson said. "And it's not hard to understand why. He's done a super job for us.
"He's got really high expectations, but there's a learning curve. No matter how talented you are as a junior, there's a learning curve that everybody has to get used to. And he's done a great job of absorbing that and learning and growing and maturing. He's really soaked up a lot of information and just keeps getting better and better and better. We're thrilled for his development, and where he's at.
"We're certainly happy he's a part of our program."
Wingardh said he's seen only one real flaw in Vandeventer's game -- spotty wedge play -- but he doesn't expect the issue to last much longer.
"Once he gets that fixed, he's definitely going to be one of the top college players," Wingardh said. "Everything else in his game is really good, and he knows that he's good. He's not scared out there."
Nerves shouldn't be a problem on the Honors, either, regardless of the circumstances, Kelson said.
"Golf's kind of funny in that you never know what's going to happen ... but we're heading into this playing the best we've been all year," he said. "It's kind of taken them this long to get here and get everybody to this point, but they all collectively are probably in the best shapes we've seen them this year."
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