Florida coach JC Deacon prides himself on getting to work early. A few days after returning from the U.S. Amateur in Chicago, he pulled into the team’s practice facility in Gainesville at 7:35 a.m. and was stopped by one of the cart guys.
“Do you know who that is right there?” the man asked Deacon, pointing to a solitary figure on the range, beating balls.
“Yeah, that’s Blake Dyer,” Deacon replied. “He’s a freshman. You can introduce yourself.”
“Well, he’s been here since 5:55,” he said, heading back toward the pro shop.
Deacon smiled, because that meant Dyer was logging a two-hour practice session before his first class of the day.
No, these aren't your typical college newcomers.
“When you don’t have to chase the guys and tell them to work harder,” Deacon says now, “it sets the tone for everybody else.”
Deacon never lacks for energy or enthusiasm, but he’s been looking forward to this class, to this week, to this first event ever since he was named the Gators’ 15th head coach on June 14, 2014.
A former Canadian Tour player, Deacon, 33, took over for Buddy Alexander, the legendary coach who in 27 years won two NCAA titles and eight SEC Championships, and oversaw the development of 31 PGA Tour players, including Chris DiMarco, Billy Horschel and Camilo Villegas.
It was time for a change. The Gators hadn’t seriously challenged for a NCAA title in nearly a decade, and in 2014, Alexander’s last year, they placed 12th at SECs and failed to reach nationals for the first time since 2000.
The program was scuffling, and of greatest concern to Deacon in those early days was that he might not be able to retain assistant coach John Handrigan, who was being pursued by other top schools. After all, the two coaches barely knew each other, but Handrigan figured to be a key figure in the Gators’ future success, having established relationships and earned verbal commitments from Sam Horsfield and Jorge Garcia, two of the top prospects in the high school class of 2015.
“That uncertainty was probably the most stressful part of it,” Deacon said, “because then we would have had to start all over again.”
Handrigan agreed to stay, and together they formed a vision for what they wanted the program to become.
Their first task? Repairing the splintered relationships within the team.
“I didn’t like the energy,” Deacon said. “I didn’t like the way the guys were treating each other. It was really difficult, and there were some pretty big issues – some tears and fighting and all of that good stuff. We really just focused on the relationships and building a team again.”
Not much was expected of the Gators, and they played like it too, finishing second-to-last in their season opener and stumbling to another poor finish against a strong field at Lake Nona.
What helped assuage the concerns in town was that Florida had landed arguably the best recruiting class in the country, built around Horsfield, a decorated amateur and English protégé of Ian Poulter, and Garcia, who moved from Venezuela when he was 12 and quickly became one of the most sought-after juniors.
They proved to be strong recruiters, as well: Horsfield introduced Deacon to Kyler Tate, one of his close friends and a highly regarded prospect out of Winter Garden and then Garcia helped convince Gordon Neale to spurn SMU and sign with the Gators.
Before long, Florida had amassed a super class, with three of the top-15 juniors, and four of the top 40. It was the college golf version of the Miami Heat’s Big 3 – an orchestrated attempt by close friends to join forces and try and win championships.
“That was one of the things that was really important to me,” Horsfield said, “being around people I know and really good players. I have that at Florida.”
Of course, the team back in Gainesville felt the buzz, was asked endlessly about the incoming class, read the stories about another big-time junior victory, listened to the coaches talk about how good the Gators were going to be … and began to feel like they were left behind.
Finally, during the winter break, JD Tomlinson, a graduating senior, walked into Deacon’s office and spoke up.
“We just feel like you’re waiting for next year and that class,” he said, “and not focusing on what we’re doing now.”
After that meeting, the Gators turned around their season and notched a couple of runner-up finishes, but they were dealt another huge blow late in the spring when their best player, Alejandro Tosti, was hospitalized because of viral meningitis. They were thought to have little chance of advancing at regionals, where only five of 13 teams move on, but they challenged for medalist honors before settling for fourth and an NCAA berth.
Those 20-year-olds who didn’t like each other, barely talked or hung out? Now they were laughing and celebrating and hugging each other behind the 18th green.
“Seeing that,” Deacon said, “was one of the best moments of my coaching career.”
Sure, the Gators were overmatched at nationals, but merely reaching that point, with that group, and without Tosti, exceeded Deacon’s expectations “by a million miles.”
And so, on June 2, the day after their NCAAs were over, it was time for Deacon and Co. to move forward.
He started an iPhone group chat that included all of his players – the promising freshmen, the established returners – and they chatted all summer, congratulating each other on strong performances in amateur tournaments and hyping up the year to come.
“By the time they got here,” Deacon said, “the seniors and older guys felt like they’d known them forever.”
Dyer may have been the only player on the range at 5:55 that morning, but soon he was joined by Horsfield and Garcia, who were late arrivals after the U.S. Amateur. The older players have followed suit too, realizing that their roster spot is no longer guaranteed.
“They’ve had a bit of a wakeup call,” Deacon said. “These kids mean business and they want to achieve the highest level they can. This is what we all wanted.”
So is this: On Friday, when the Gators open their season at the Carpet Capital in Georgia, they will start four of the heralded freshmen. A new era has begun.