Griz golfers open season with Battle at the Rock

When asked what he was looking for from his team’s first of five spring tournaments, second-year coach Matt Higgins joked, “Green grass. Next week last year we were out hitting on grass. Obviously we’re not going to be doing that this year. (GoGriz.com)

By GoGriz.com

Missoula may feel like it is months away from having green fairways, but that won’t stop the Montana golf team from opening its spring season this week at the Battle at the Rock in Riverside, Calif.

The two-day tournament will play on Monday and Tuesday at the Oak Quarry Golf Club, named the Golf Course of the Year in 2013 by the National Golf Course Owners Association, and feature 15 teams, including Montana, Northern Arizona and Portland State from the Big Sky Conference.

When asked what he was looking for from his team’s first of five spring tournaments, second-year coach Matt Higgins joked, “Green grass. Next week last year we were out hitting on grass. Obviously we’re not going to be doing that this year.

“The girls have been practicing pretty well. Having the (Bill Ruegamer Indoor Golf Facility) obviously helps. They’ve been getting the work done, even if we can’t hit off of grass yet. They’ve been striking the ball pretty well.”

Higgins will bring a five-player team of junior Kari Opatz, junior Hailey Hoagland, sophomore Baylee Barckley, freshman Teigan Avery and freshman Caitlyn Villatora to California.

That’s the lineup Higgins used in three of Montana’s five fall tournaments, as the Grizzlies finished with a team scoring average of 312.8.

Opatz (76.7) and Hoagland (77.7) had the team’s best individual averages in the fall. Avery (79.3) and Villatora (79.9) were both sub-80, and Barckley (80.4) had a strong finish, carding a 74 in the second round of the team’s final tournament at Hot Springs Village, Ark.

“The course looks beautiful and is in great condition. We’ll get in some good chipping and putting when we get down there on Saturday. When we go out for our practice round on Sunday, we can focus on our course management,” said Higgins.

The spring season for Montana begins nearly a month earlier than last year, when the Grizzlies opened at Fresno State’s tournament on March 7. Montana will not have any back-to-back tournaments this spring.

“It will be a little different getting out this early, but hopefully it will benefit us,” said Higgins. “It gives the players time to rest and time to be students between tournaments, and it gives us some good practice time.

“It’s hard to work on things that you know you need to work on after a tournament when you’re having to leave for another one a few days later.”

Montana opened its fall schedule with a strong showing at the Washington State Cougar Cup, firing rounds of 307, 302 and 307, but the Grizzlies shot better than 310 only four more times over the next 12 rounds at four tournaments, the same number of rounds played at 320 or higher.

Montana finished seventh at Washington State, then placed outside of the top 10 at the next four tournaments.

“We were good at hitting fairways as a team. I think we were 69 or 70 percent, but we were under 50 percent hitting greens,” said Higgins.

“We’ve tried to work on our mid- and short-iron play, from 150 yards in. I’d really like to see us improve on our greens-in-regulation stats. That’s what hurt us the most last fall.”

Montana tied for eighth at last year’s Big Sky Championship at Boulder City, Nev., and was picked 10th in this year’s preseason coaches’ poll.

The Grizzlies will play tournaments in California, Texas and Arizona before returning to Boulder City in late April for the conference tournament.

“Each week is a step we need to make,” Higgins said. “By the end of the spring, I think we can be where we have the potential to be. Once we start seeing results, low scores are going to be easier to come by. It’s just getting over that hump.”