That was the day after Florida’s fall finale at Iselworth. The Gators had tied for fifth, disappointingly their best finish in four events; they had also shared eighth at Olympia Fields, finished solo 12th at Colonial and gone 1-4 at the SEC Match Play. That prompted head coach J.C. Deacon and assistant Dudley Hart to challenge their players this winter, changing things up to get them out of their comfort zones and encouraging them to get in the dirt and find whatever would make them better.
That included junior standout Ricky Castillo, a Walker Cupper and past Phil Mickelson Award winner who had yet to finish better than T-39 this season. Deacon estimates Castillo played over 75 rounds since the fall season ended, as he’s started to not rest on his laurels. His teammates haven’t been far behind.
“The response was unbelievable,” Deacon said.
Florida kicked off its spring with a victory Tuesday at the Sea Best Invitational, rallying from fourth place after two rounds with a final-round, 4-under 276 and finishing six shots clear of Liberty on the Dye’s Valley Course at TPC Sawgrass.
“This is a little embarrassing to say but it was the first time all year that we’ve been in contention, so I was excited that we had a chance to win, and I felt pretty good about it,” Deacon said. “That early time probably helped just because we got off to a halfway decent start and it was like, all right, the Gators are in this, we aren’t going anywhere. We got in the mix early and just kept it going and shot 4 under, which is pretty dang good on that golf course.”
Junior John Dubois led the way for the Gators, closing in 3-under 67 to notch the best finish of his college career, a T-2. Castillo shrugged off a second-round 76, where he actually struck it well but rinsed a few shots, to finish T-4.
The rest of Florida’s lineup contributed in spots, as junior Yuxin Lin aced the 14th hole Tuesday, senior Giovanni Manzoni came up big with a second-round 70 and Fred Biondi was steady with three straight rounds in the low 70s.
“Obviously, it was awesome to win this week, but we still have a lot to clean up,” Deacon said. “We know we’ve gotta lot of work to do. This team is super close, pushing each other really hard, and we have to keep the pedal down and keep going.”
Adding to Florida’s growing confidence is the addition of a third coach. PGA Tour player Billy Horschel was at TPC Sawgrass all three days, including the practice round, after officially signing on as the team’s volunteer assistant coach this spring.
“I’ve gotta hand it to him, he’s been incredible,” Deacon said. “He’s really spent a lot of time getting to know the guys, learning their games and being a huge part of our team. He’s helping a lot. He’s got that swagger and confidence, and enthusiasm and love for the Gators that is palpable, and the guys can feel it. … He’s a full-time PGA Tour player and traveling a ton, but he spent every minute with us this entire weekend. He really cares a lot. I think he’s really enjoying it kind of giving back and teaching these guys and coaching; that part really excites him, and you know, it’s just as much fun for him as it is for us.
“He made a big difference this weekend.”
Deacon said Horschel especially had an impact on Dubois, who played sparingly his first two seasons in Gainesville before making every lineup last fall. Initially committed to Florida Southern, a D-II powerhouse, Dubois ending up switching to the Gators after a spot opened late in the recruiting process and flashed some potential his freshman year with occasional low rounds in practice; he just struggled to take it on the road and do it consistently.
“Where Billy comes in, with John and Fred Biondi, too, is he’s telling those guys, ‘You guys are really good. No one’s making this up. You guys should start to have that swagger and confidence that everyone else thinks you should because you guys have it. You guys are legit players,’” Deacon said. “I’m their coach and they’re like, ‘Whatever, coach, we know you love us.’ But when you hear it from Billy Horschel, who is playing with the best players in the world, week in and week out, and he’s telling you that, it’s got a little extra to it, and I think it meant a lot to both of them. He really, really believes in those guys and thinks they both have a chance to play at the highest level and that’s special to hear from someone like that.”
Deacon said Horschel will still play a full Tour schedule – he’ll miss next weekend’s home event, the Gator Invitational, to compete in Phoenix – but he’ll be around every chance he gets.
“He’s built a real relationship with our players,” Deacon said. “He’s watching everything we do and is going to be heavily involved. He doesn’t need Dudley or I’s permission, he’ll be reaching out to the guys on his own and having an effect on them and helping them grow as players. To have someone in the prime of their career, who just shot 63 last week at Torrey Pines, that’s pretty special.”
With Horschel’s arrival, the Gators now have eight PGA Tour wins between Horschel (6) and Hart, who was promoted following the departure of former assistant coach Mark Leon last summer.
“That’s a pretty unique thing to offer to players coming in to play college golf,” Deacon said. “I’m not sure how many programs have that type of experience that they can provide for development.”
Deacon, a two-time Florida State Open winner while coaching the Gators, also knows he’s no longer the best playing coach on the team.
“I all of a sudden went from first to third real quick,” Deacon added, “so I better go practice.”
His players are now setting that example.