By Dylan Butler
With yet another stellar performance last weekend at the Metacomet Country Club in East Providence, R.I., Andrew Svoboda placed himself in the St. John’s golf record books as the first Red Storm golfer to win a share of the Big East title since P.J. Cowan in 1987. The sophomore carded a five-over par 215 to lead St. John’s to a second place finish behind nationally ranked Virginia Tech.
A couple of years ago the Stanford, Conn. resident didn’t even think he’d be golfing at St. John’s. Instead he toiled away on the bench at North Carolina State, one of the premier programs in the country.
Svoboda was tired of being the “sixth man” on the Wolfpack, sitting out tournament after tournament. Luckily for St. John’s coach Frank Darby, Svoboda had Red Storm roots.
“My parents both went to St. John’s and my father taught here,” he said. “I like living here close to home and close to my golf club [Winged Foot in Mamaroneck]. It was comfortable for me.”
Jesse Fitzgerald found himself in a similar boat. After a solid high school career that included a New York State championship in 1996, two Long Island High School championships (1996 and 1997) and two Suffolk County titles (1995 and 1996), the Sayville native opted for the prestige of the University of South Carolina.
But like Svoboda, Fitzgerald red-shirted his freshman year and didn’t get much playing time for a stacked Gamecocks squad. South Carolina’s rigorous practice schedule turned the sport that he loves into a job. And he was miserable.
“Practice was very tiresome, it was too repetitive,” Fitzgerald said. “I got a bit burned out.”
Fitzgerald, who was heavily recruited by St. John’s coach Frank Darby, wanted to come back home and play golf in familiar surroundings. He decided to transfer to St. John’s.
“It’s close to home and I knew the guys on the squad and knew they had a solid lineup,” Fitzgerald said. “There’s not as much pressure on me here.”
The duo have become one of the top one-two punches in the Northeast and led the Red Storm to a solid season, which will likely include the school’s first NCAA regional bid in at least 12 years.
“Their numbers are comparable with some of the top programs in the country,” Darby said. “They are averaging 145 1/2 [stroke average] between the two of them which is pretty good. And they back it up. They do the same thing each time they play.”
Svoboda has led the way for the Red Storm with a 72.96 stroke average. Ranked second individually in District II and 80th nationally entering the Big East tournament, he won the James Madison Invitational and the Temple Invitational during the fall season and posted three consecutive top-five finishes this spring.
Svoboda, whose strength is his strong and accurate drive off the tee, had the second-best score in Big East tournament history with a second-round three-under par 67 following a seven-over par 77 opening round. He followed with a one-over par 71 to finish tied with Notre Dame’s Steve Ratay and Brian Krusoe to share the Big East title.
“He’s a good striker of a golf ball and he has pretty good temperament on the golf course,” Darby said of Svoboda. “He’s very, very talented and he wants to win. He has a lot of that inner-type stuff. He could play for any program.”
Fitzgerald, who is also strong off the tee, is right behind Svoboda with a 73.48 stroke average and won the Liberty Ramada Classic with a six-under par 133. He earned All-Big East honors with an eight-over par 218, good for a share of fourth place in the conference championships.
“He hasn’t played competitively in two years at South Carolina and he’s been on a roll ever since he got here,” Darby said. “At least now they are both back home, close to their teachers and instructors. Being happy has really helped.”
While they didn’t get the automatic bid by winning the Big East Tournament, Darby is confident the Red Storm will garner one of the at-large bids to the NCAA Regionals on May 8. And there’s a very good chance that St. John’s will be paired with both South Carolina and North Carolina State in the 30-team field at the East Regional, traditionally the toughest of the three regionals.
“I’m very excited because I’ll get to see some of my old teammates down there,” Fitzgerald said. “It should be fun because I’ve never had to chance to play with them.”
Added Svoboda: “That would be interesting.”
Reach Associate Sports Editor Dylan Butler by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 143.