EAST GREENSBORO – North Carolina A&T men’s golfer JR Smith (FR, Millstone Township, N.J.) will play in his first collegiate tournament, Oct. 11-12, when the Aggies participate in the Phoenix Invitational hosted by Elon University at the par-71, 6,867-yard Alamance Country Club golf course.
All A&T golfers must qualify for each tournament in practice unless the golfer finishes first or second on the team in the previous tournament. Smith, a two-time NBA champion with the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Los Angeles Lakers, qualified for the Phoenix Invitational by one stroke.
Smith enrolled at A&T after spending 16 seasons in the NBA. A&T men’s golf coach said if he had his druthers, Smith would play his first-ever collegiate round without all the undue attention. But he knows that is not likely, so he is hoping for something else.
“I’m hoping it puts pressure on the two guys playing with him,” said Watkins. “I’m hoping it does not affect him. You would think a guy like JR is used to having eyes on him.”
Smith competed at the highest level as a basketball player. But according to Watkins, this experience will be different. Smith is an excellent golfer, but he has minimal experience in tournament play. He has played chiefly leisurely or in celebratory events. Watkins guaranteed Smith tournament play would be a learning curve.
“He has a good enough golf game to put up some good numbers,” said Watkins. “But this is what I tell people. If you want to find out how good a golfer really is, put the word tournament or money in front of the round. Playing when there is nothing on the line is one thing. But, put meaning to it, and the heart rate changes. The grip on the club changes, and we get to see who you really are.”
The focus might be on Smith, but his teammates are playing well enough for a bit of attention of their own. Xavier Williams(SR, Boling Springs, N.C.) recently finished tied for first at the HBCU Division I Invitational in Georgia.
Williams eventually lost in a three-hole playoff, earning co-Big South men’s golfer of the week. It was the program’s first-ever weekly conference honor. What helped Williams earn the recognition was learning to stick to the game plan.
“You use the practice round to gather information from the course,” said Watkins. “You get a game plan on how to approach different holes. But then you get out there in the middle of the round and decide to try this or try this. No, stick with your game plan. He is starting to do a good job of doing that.”
Diego Gonzalez (SR, Caracas, Venezuela) placed five birdies on his scorecard on the second day of the HBCU Division I Invitational. He shot a second-round 1-over par, moving up eight spots from his first-round score to finish tied for 14th at 6-over 150.
“First of all, they are both good players,” Watkins said of Williams and Gonzalez. “They have a healthy competition going on right now, and neither wants to lose to the other. I hope that becomes contagious throughout the team.”
That competition in practice is what Smith and others will need to play in tournaments.