Dave Pezzino’s team didn’t play in the fall, and holed up in Storrs, Connecticut, the UConn men’s golf coach found himself grateful that he could live through the experiences of the teams that did tee it up.
Months of quarantine went by during COVID-19 pandemic when there was no golf to watch. The Tour came back in June but college golf came back – sort of – in September. Pezzino happily tuned in to the Blessings Collegiate Invitational on Golf Channel the first week of October.
Two weeks later, he was running numbers just to feel it again.
“The Maridoe tournament, I was grateful that they put a hole location sheet out because I took that, broke it down, started looking at pluses and minuses on the hole locations,” he said. “I missed it so much.”
Pezzino’s last memory from the 2020 college season is from the fairway at nearby Tallwood Golf Club. It was March 12, the day before the NCAA called off all spring sports amid a spreading pandemic, and Pezzino felt a heart-to-heart was in order.
“I didn’t think we were playing very well and I thought it was more of a growing-up issue and just staying focused because the world around us was falling apart when this whole thing was going down,” he said. “None of us had ever experienced anything like this. I think I was trying to push them a little bit.”
Pezzino didn’t keep track of the days that elapsed from that speech to Feb. 1, 2021, the opening round of Big East Match Play. It was more than 300.
With COVID-19 cases so high in the Northeast, Pezzino knew it made more sense for his players to spend the fall season at home where they could practice, take classes online and ultimately stay safer. The Huskies “crushed it, academically,” Pezzino said.
“As much as I missed them, it was the right thing to do.”
Pezzino brought his players back to campus Jan. 3. They quarantined and started practice a few days later, sacrificing warmer weather for the chance to finally be together.
Never in his coaching career has Pezzino begun a spring season with back-to-back match-play tournaments. This month, UConn’s men have won five of six matches as a team between the Big East event and the Ball State-hosted Earl Yestingsmeier Match Play.
Big East Match Play allowed Pezzino to see how his men stacked up in the conference. Teams played Pelican Golf Club in Belleair, Florida, which hosted the inaugural Pelican Women’s Championship on the LPGA in November. That amounted to a pinch-me moment on many levels.
“The conditions of the golf course were phenomenal,” Pezzino said. “To be able to get out at a place like that in February, the week before the Super Bowl in the Super Bowl hometown, with the hometown team? It’s mind-numbing.”
UConn defeated Seton Hall and DePaul that week, only falling to tournament champion Marquette. A week later, UConn took the bottom seed in Ball State’s match-play event (based on their ranking last spring) and in the pool-play format, earned head-to-head wins over Drake, Loyola-Chicago and Evansville to claim the title.
The Huskies are young, with half the lineup teeing it up in their first college competition at those events. Pezzino couldn’t think of a better way to ease them in.
“It was awesome for me because the freshmen had never played in a college event before so it was OK if they stubbed their toe, it wasn’t a big number,” he said. “It was just a lost hole.”
From here, UConn has three weeks off until it competes again at the Sea Palms Invite in St. Simons Island, Georgia. Pezzino says his men could not be more grateful for the opportunity ahead this season. That’s a feeling many teams are probably experience.
If there was one positive to a longer-than-expected break, perhaps it’s perspective.
“Give these guys a dozen balls and they’re so excited,” he said. “It’s like we’ve hit refresh on the college golf experience here at UConn.”