MEN'S GOLF: Ball State wins Firestone Invitational by 13 strokes

Merkel leads team with finish at second overall

Frost was enough to shorten and delay the Firestone Invitational, but it was not enough to stop Ball State from playing some of its best golf in years.

Ball State had its best team round in three years, but that is not what the squad celebrated the most after the Firestone Invitational concluded.

The Cardinals were the only team to post two rounds below par, and that let the team hoist some hardware.

Ball State dominated the field, shooting a 569 (282-287), and won the weather-shortened Firestone Invitational by a landslide.

No. 22 Saint Mary's College of California was a distant second, 13 strokes worse, with a 582 (296-286).

A solid, collective effort from all five golfers let the team go seven-under-par, the only team that finished under par for the event.

But the Cardinals did not just waltz through the competition, even though that is what the score shows.

Midway through Monday's round, Ball State stalled a bit and allowed St. Mary's within striking distance.

At this crucial moment, when the lead seemed to be slipping, coach Mike Fleck said the team showed good resolve and got themselves back on track.

"We have an experienced group out there," Fleck said. "Even though we hit a wall in the middle part of the course, the guys stayed confident and continued to give themselves opportunities to score well."

Fleck noted that senior Joe Gasser did an especially good job of this and that he was competitive on every hole he played.

Gasser's score reflected his coach's praise, as he went three-under with a 141 (71-70).

Only two players in the event could boast better scores, one being Gasser's teammate, junior Tyler Merkel.

Merkel finished second in the event, just edging Gasser with a 140 (68-72).

Merkel's finish won some bragging rights over host Akron's English-born No.1 golfer Charlie Bull, in the two's small scale rematch of the Ryder Cup.

Merkel scored very well on par-fives in the event, going five-under with no bogeys on eight opportunities.

"My wedges were sharp," Merkel said. "I stopped thinking and trying to aim them, and I had a lot of success just hitting them."

While Merkel headlined holes five, seven, 16 and 18, Ball State as a team shot 14-under on par-fives, and continued its strong season play on these types of holes.

Senior Brodie Williams lead Ball State's final charge and ended his round with three consecutive birdies, bringing his score total to 149 (77-72).

Fellow senior Tony Lazzara also provided the Cardinals with a boost, shooting a career best 145 (72-73).

His scored finally marked some production out of the fifth spot, something the team has been looking for all season.

Rounding out Ball State's score was senior Alex Stinson, who shot a 146 (71-75).

Freshman James Blackwell, competing as an individual, turned in a 154 (77-77).

Fleck said the team rallying together and playing well at the same time is nothing new for this group. The Cardinals' top-five have played with each other for the last three years.

"They have a knack for being there for each other," Fleck said. "And that is really important in team golf."

Even after a win like this, the team has already turned its attention to defending its home course Monday in the Earl Yestingsmeier Invitational.

"We're already thinking about it," Fleck said.


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