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With each putt (and now win), OU junior Patrick Welch's confidence returns

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If Oklahoma head coach Ryan Hybl ranked the best ball-strikers that he’s coached, Patrick Welch would be at or near the top of the list.

“Always has been, always will be,” Hybl said. “If we had a 7-iron that had to be put on the green to win the national championship, he’s my guy that I’m going to pick to hit that 7-iron.”

As for the winning putt, well, that’s likely a different story.

In the past year, Welch has spent considerable time at rock bottom on the greens as he’s battled the flatstick demons. During that rocky stretch, the missed putts haven’t been the only thing piling up but also the missed tournaments. It’s no fun sitting on the bench, especially at the biggest events of the season – “and it’s not fun for me to put him there,” Hybl says – but there was little option.

“I had no confidence,” Welch said, “and a lot of doubts.”

But what Welch still possessed was resolve, and last Tuesday in Las Vegas, the cross-handed junior put that determination on display by notching the first 54-hole victory of his college career against what is traditionally one of the stoutest fields of the regular season, at the Southern Highlands Collegiate.

The one his teammates call “Vinny” was back.

Deadlocked in a three-way tie for the lead after two rounds, Welch closed with a bogey-free, 5-under 67 to win by three shots over a fivesome of big-time players, including Pepperdine’s Joe Highsmith, Texas’ Cole Hammer and red-hot Fred Biondi of Florida. The watershed moment came with a little extra, too: Welch’s first PGA Tour start; he’s exempt into the Shriners Open this fall at TPC Summerlin.

“Man, it’s fun to be able to watch a guy come out on the other side,” Hybl said. “I’m gonna tell you, what I saw was a guy – and I’ll be honest, Vinny hasn’t won very many big tournaments in his career – but he acted like he had been there is whole life because that’s who he is.”

WHAT MADE HIS STRUGGLES so difficult to comprehend was that Welch was never the guy who was supposed to be sitting on the sidelines. But that’s exactly where he found himself after being subbed out following an opening 80 at last year’s NCAA Albuquerque Regional. The Sooners squeezed through, but when it came to the NCAA Championship lineup, Welch was squeezed out.

Welch saw limited action at Grayhawk, getting the bullpen call to replace an also-reeling Garett Reband in the quarterfinals. But he was quickly beaten by Illinois’ Adrien Dumont de Chassart, 8 and 6, and relegated back to spectating duty as the Sooners battled all the way to the final match before falling to Pepperdine.

“I didn’t play my part last year at the end of the year,” Welch said. “If I was playing like I was now last year during postseason, I think it could’ve been a little different. I think about that quite a bit.”

When it comes to seeing the ball go in the hole, it didn’t get much better for Welch as the summer rolled around. He missed cuts at the Sunnehanna, Northeast and Western amateurs. At the Northeast, Welch’s hometown event at venerable Wannamoisett Country Club outside of Providence, Rhode Island, Welch finished solo 87th and beat just five guys.

The fall brought with it some better signs – Welch was especially encouraged by a T-11 showing on a tough Maridoe layout. Yet by the end of his next start, at Colonial, Welch had taken another two steps back, carding a first-round 79 before placing 70th. He then got the nod for just three of five matches at the Big 12 Match Play, where six players per team compete in each round, and went 1-1-1.

When it came time for Welch to defend his stroke-play medal at the East Lake Cup, Welch didn’t even make the trip to Atlanta.

“As with any athlete, if you’re not in a good spot, even though you want to pull your bootstraps up and get after because that’s our warrior mentality, it’s still tough,” Hybl said. “Regardless, nobody likes being put on the bench because nobody likes being told that you’re not good enough.”

But Welch wouldn’t quit. He wanted to be a leader for this team – he told Hybl as much before heading to Aliso Viejo, California, where his family now lives, for winter break. And he wasn’t going to let that pesky putter keep him down for much longer.

“I just wanted to be better for my teammates, for myself,” Welch said. “I didn’t want to let anyone down anymore.”

He put the clubs away for a few weeks around the holidays, instead picking up a fishing pole. Welch had used quiet days on the lake to find peace before, mainly a couple of summers ago after the sudden death of his father, Marty. Compared to that, this slump was nothing.

Welch didn’t play many rounds back home, but he practiced like crazy. He also gave in and finally started seeing a sports psychologist.

“He came back to campus, and his game was ready,” Hybl said.

A few days into qualifying for the Sooners’ spring opener in Puerto Rico, Welch caught fire with a 12-under 60 on the team’s home course, Jimmie Austin Golf Club. It was, as Welch described, the “turning point.” Until then, no player in the history of the Oklahoma program had gone that low; Welch himself had only managed a 64 before.

He shot 63 a week later, and then a 62 in the opening round of the Puerto Rico Classic, where he eventually tied for sixth, six shots behind teammate and tournament winner Chris Gotterup but also his first top-10 finish anywhere in nearly a year.

As he turned his sights toward Vegas, Welch was “locked in.”

“I wanted to win so bad,” Welch said.

HYBL CONTENDS THAT WINNING golf tournaments involves a lot of skill but also a lucky break or two. Even with Welch focused on not giving away any shots during the final round at Southern Highlands, it was only expected that he would have to overcome a few hurdles.

First came the par-5 third hole, where Welch’s left thumb slipped on the club, sending his second shot right and toward some water. But just as Welch was coming to grips with his ball finding a watery grave, the ball barely carried the wet stuff, hit a rock and ricocheted onto the green.

What looked like a tough par turned into an easy birdie.

“Very lucky,” said Welch, who added a couple more birdies and what Hybl called a “big-time” 4-iron on the par-5 ninth (though Welch three-putted for par) to turn in 4-under 32.

Welch may have carded just one birdie on the back side, at No. 14. But while playing competitors Biondi and Texas’ Mason Nome combined to play in the final nine in 4 over, it was Welch’s eight pars that one him the title.

No par was more impressive than the one on the par-4 16th hole. After driving his ball behind a bush, some 73 yards short of the flag, Welch hit a massive flop that cleared the shrub and somehow found the green to set up a two-putt from 30 feet.

“I didn’t think I had to really go after it,” Welch recalled, “but when I stood over the ball, looked at lie, and then looked up and saw the bush in front of me, I’m like, ‘Yeah, I have to flop it.’ I took a full swing and just hoped that it didn’t hit anything, and it came out perfect. I flushed it, and it shot out like a cannon, straight in the air, and landed on the green.”

Added Hybl: “I could’ve taken 90% of my guys in that spot and they would’ve hit the bush.”

Hybl walked with Welch the entire final round, partly to keep his guy calm but also to hopefully witness all of Welch’s hard work pay off. As they walked down the 18th fairway, the moment was greater than Hybl could’ve imagined.

Later that night, Hybl posted a photo of that walk along with a lengthy caption that began: It’s hard to understand sometimes what life puts us through and also how hard our game can be on us. Vinny has been through it all and I’m so dang proud…

“For me personally, I don’t know if I’ve been that nervous with any of my guys – maybe ever – to be honest with you,” Hybl said. “I just wanted it so badly for him because I know he was wanting it so badly. Man, we were just trying to have as much fun and stay as cool and calm as we possibly could, but deep down I was churning big time for him because I knew that it was going to be that big of a confidence boost and get him over the hump that much more.”

A couple days after his triumph, the achievement had settled in for Welch. He was already eyeing the Sooners’ next tournament, the NIT in Tucson, Arizona, where Oklahoma will look to win its fourth straight event as a team, as well as his highly anticipated Tour debut in October – he just wished he didn’t have to wait that long. He had also planned to do some putting soon, no longer afraid to go work on his stroke.

And he was still wearing the crimson bracelet that his sister had made him. Welch put on what he calls “manifestation bracelet” on his left wrist prior to his last 18 holes in Vegas.

“She goes, ‘Whatever you want, just wear this,’ and it worked,” Welch said. “So, I’m going to keep wearing it.”

Who knows, maybe it will help him not only hit the key shot but also sink the crucial putt in a few months. Not that Welch plans on needing it.