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Thursday, May 23, 2024

Young Gators look to the horizon following rocky season

The Florida men’s golf team arrived back home Tuesday after their 2020-21 campaign folded in Arizona

Florida's Joe Pagdin reads a putt at Mark Bostick Golf Course in Gainesville, Florida. Pagdin was one of four underclassmen to play in every spring tournament for the Gators and the SEC Freshman of the Year highlights the team's youth.
Florida's Joe Pagdin reads a putt at Mark Bostick Golf Course in Gainesville, Florida. Pagdin was one of four underclassmen to play in every spring tournament for the Gators and the SEC Freshman of the Year highlights the team's youth.

While the flashes of greatness were visible this season, the Florida men’s golf team missed the week-to-week consistency to take the next step for 2021. 

Ricky Castillo, Joe Pagdin and the rest of this Gators’ team are not going anywhere, however. Head coach JC Deacon remains at the helm and the outlook for next season is taking shape. 

Castillo won the Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Year a year ago and continued to be a leader of Florida’s team throughout 2020-21. Pagdin took home the same honor this season and will serve as an anchor of Florida’s lineup for years to come. . 

The two had more than just youth to offer. Castillo led the team with a 71.06 scoring average and seven top-25 finishes. He paced the Gators with 97 birdies and five eagles, and all but one of his 27 rounds counted towards the team total.

Pagdin didn’t take long to adjust to the collegiate game. He offered a team-high three top-10s,  including the team’s only top-five finish at The Calusa Cap April 4-6. He erupted this spring with all three of his top tens coming after February. The duo shared the most under-par rounds on the team with 13.

The rest of Florida’s starters weren’t much older. Freshman Tyler Wilkes joined them as the only three Gators to compete in every event this season, and junior transfer Giovanni Manzoni was the only upperclassmen to play more than 20 rounds. 

The young Gator lineup’s learning curve began immediately as they faced adversity right out of the gate with their first tournament, the Blessings Collegiate Invitational in October. 

A trip to Fayetteville, Arkansas, to face a field composed of the whole SEC did not bode well for Florida. The two freshmen on the team, Pagdin and Wilkes, paced the Gators in their first event, but no Gator finished higher than a tie for 26th. The result was a 12th place finish at 30-over-par. 

Florida’s next outing took a big shift in the right direction. Redshirt sophomore Fred Biondi led the way for the Gators at the Vanderbilt Legends Collegiate with his best score to par all season, 7-under, and Florida finished with a 24-under-par tie for fourth against another all SEC field. 

However, steps forward were often followed by steps backwards for the Gators. At the Jerry Pate National Intercollegiate in November, the Gators finished 25 strokes back of the Auburn Tigers and went into winter break with three inconsistent results under their belt. 

Florida entered the spring half of its season as an unpredictable, unreliable squad. As the weather cooled down, however, the Gators heated up. 

A quick trip up the road to Jacksonville for the Timuquana Collegiate followed by their home tournament, the Gators Invitational, resulted in back-to-back team wins. 

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Castillo picked up the first of his two top-10 finishes this season in Jacksonville, tying for eighth at 6-under-par. USC transfer Yuxin Lin and Pagdin both finished in the top-10 at the Florida-hosted event, finishing in a tie for sixth and tie for eighth respectively in Gainesville. Lin fired a season-low final round 65 to lead a final round 15-under 265 and a seven-stroke comeback win.

Lin, a sophomore who joined the team in the spring, became the fourth underclassmen lineup staple. He finished no worse than 28th in his first four events at UF and played every event in 2021.  

The Gators finished in the middle of the pack in their final two tournaments of the spring, where Wilkes served as a brightspot through the rough stretch.  The Tampa, Florida, native earned a career-best tie for 15th finish in both tournaments. 

The Gators’ postseason outings were reminiscent of its entire season — mercurial. 

Florida never settled itself in the SEC Tournament, with only Pagdin breaking par in any of the three rounds and three of Florida’s five outside the top 30. The Gators finished that outing in a tie for ninth and 20-over-par. 

At the NCAA Regionals in Cle Elum, Washington, the Gators scraped and crawled their way to the fifth and final national championship bid. Florida vaulted three positions up the leaderboard during the final day of play, capitalizing on teams ahead of them crumbling with an even-par 284. 

UF began play at the NCAA Championship Friday and stayed close to the middle of the pack throughout the weekend. The steep competition and a challenging Grayhawk Golf Club Raptor course proved to be more than the inexperienced Florida could handle. 

Through three rounds of stroke play, every Gator other than Castillo recorded at least one 5-over-par or worse round. On Sunday, Florida flirted with the top-15 cut line but ultimately fell victim to the final four holes, which they played 14-over-par. 

Despite the ups and downs and the disappointing ending, Deacon knows the untapped potential of this team and is looking forward to its future. Castillo, Pagdin, Lin and Wilkes all have multiple years of eligibility left, and, barring any unforeseen departures, Deacon has the core of his squad through the 2022-23 season.

“We have everyone returning next year and I’m already thinking of ways we can grow this summer,” he said.

The talent of the fresh-faced Gators is obvious. More stability and experience in 2021-22 could be the missing piece to something special. 

Contact Joseph Henry at Follow him on Twitter @Josephhenry2424

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Joseph Henry

Joseph Henry is a fourth-year sports journalism major and is the Alligator's sports editor. He previously worked as senior news director, assistant sports editor, men's basketball beat reporter, volleyball beat reporter and golf beat reporter. He enjoys sitting down to watch a movie as often as possible, collecting vinyl and drinking Dr. Pepper. 

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