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Thursday February 9, 2012Vogel's Breakthrough with Gators Part of a Long Climb Back

Scott Carter
By SCOTT CARTER Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – T.J. Vogel stepped into the tee box on the first hole, placed his ball and drilled it down the middle of the fairway during a practice round Wednesday at UF’s Mark Bostick Golf Course.

A routine shot on a routine day, something Vogel has done thousands of times in his 21 years.

But less than a year ago Vogel’s ability to make the routine look easy was a skill seemingly lost from his game.

Vogel’s father Joe, the women’s head golf coach at Florida International University, served as Vogel’s primary instructor when T.J. was growing up in South Florida. After a decorated junior and prep career at American Heritage High in Plantation, Vogel opted to move cross country to play college golf at Southern Cal.

For the first year and half all went according to script in Los Angeles. Vogel was playing well, making new friends and enjoying college life far from home. However, last spring Vogel’s game began to slip. His confidence went with it, never more evident to Joe than at last summer’s NCAA Championships in Oklahoma.

It was only Joe’s third time seeing his son play in two years at USC and T.J. didn’t even look like the same player he first started training when T.J. was 5.

“He hit some shots in the national championship that I had never seen him hit before – way left or way right,’’ Joe said. “He hit a couple of shots that were very short of the green – totally club misjudged – where he hit the ball into the wind, which is totally unlike him. He is more of a trapper of the ball into the wind.”

T.J.’s putter also wasn’t treating him kindly, and his short game wasn’t any better.

He felt lost trying to find his way around the course, finishing the three-day tournament at 17-over-par and tied for 113th in the individual standings.

“I was pretty upset,’’ T.J. said. “I had a great sophomore fall and then I just plummeted. I played awful. I always have high expectations for myself, and once those aren’t met, I was like, ‘I’ve got to fix this. There is something wrong.’ It still kind of baffles me how badly I hit it last spring. I’ve always been a pretty good ball striker. When things get out of whack, they are tough to get back normally.”

To turn his game around, Vogel felt he needed to take drastic measures. A change of scenery was in order. Prior to going to USC, Vogel made a recruiting visit to Florida and the Gators were at the top of his list. His best friend, Tyler McCumber, signed with the Gators as Vogel headed west. When Vogel finally made the difficult decision to transfer, he headed home.

Vogel’s homecoming has been a birdie in golf terminology. In 13 rounds at UF, he leads the Gators with a 71.8 stokes-per-round scoring average. He has four top-10 finishes in five tournaments and has a team-high 45 birdies over that stretch.

The highlight of Vogel’s brief time at UF came on Jan. 31 when he led the Gators to a win in the spring season opener at the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass.

“It felt so good,’’ Vogel said. “It was more like I couldn’t believe it took that long for that to happen. I was so close; to finally get it was a great feeling.”

 Vogel finished at 216 (E) over three rounds to earn the individual title at the Sea Best Invitation, his first collegiate championship after countless ones in high school and in junior golf growing up.

Vogel hopes to stay hot as the Gators host the SunTrust Gator Invitational this weekend. His recent turnaround began over the summer when he returned home and worked extensively with his father on redeveloping his game – as much mentally as physically.

“He knows my game better than anyone,’’ T.J. said. “He’s the type of guy that can just look at one swing and say, ‘this is wrong,’ and can fix me in a second.”

It wasn’t quite that easy as T.J. and Joe spent much of the summer on the golf course, often spending hours each day at the Biltmore Golf Club in Miami working on every aspect of the game.

By the time the fall season started at UF and Gators coach Buddy Alexander began working regularly with Vogel, he saw a different player than he remembered from last summer’s NCAA Championships.

“He struggled mightily [out there], to the point where I think his confidence was down the tubes,’’ Alexander said. “I didn’t know exactly how much damage had been done. Every tournament since he’s been here has been solid. He’s found a comfort level that has worked pretty well for him.

“I think he has been a little more than we expected to be honest.”

Vogel’s arrival at UF came two years later than Alexander had hoped – “He was way up on our list and it was really a big disappointment when we didn’t get T.J.” Alexander said – but the wait appears worth it on all sides. According to Alexander, Vogel is probably the most talented transfer to come into the program in his 24 seasons as Florida’s coach.

Vogel is a meticulous worker and has served as a leader-by-example for his younger teammates, Alexander said, which are extra benefits considering Vogel’s work on the course.

“Golf is one of those things where it’s what have you done for me lately,’’ Alexander said. “So far, what he has done for us lately has been pretty awesome.”

Vogel was named GolfWeek’s Player of the Week on Monday for his win at TPC Sawgrass and his transition has gone seamless. His addition also helped Alexander fill a big hole when a player of similar skill, sophomore Phillip Choi, opted to turn pro following last season.

The biggest turnaround for Vogel is that his confidence, missing at last year’s NCAA Finals, has returned and received a huge boost from his first collegiate win.

“With a win, I feel – not complete – but that I’m on the right path,’’ Vogel said. “Hard work and confidence is the key to success. I play on confidence, that’s the way I am. If I’m not feeling confidence, I’m obviously not going to hit it as well and or play well. When I’m confident, I don’t even think about my swing. It’s just more of a feel. That’s what I developed when I got back home. I got my feel back.”

Vogel still picks apart his game as much as ever. He points out that in his win, he didn’t putt or chip particularly well, making only 3 of 12 ups and downs. Still, when the victory was in his bag and it was time to head back to Gainesville, his father was one of the first people he called.

T.J.’s mom, Jamie, was at the tournament but Joe was back in South Florida working. T.J. wanted to make sure to share the win with his dad considering the guidance he provided to get his game back on track.

Joe Vogel didn’t have to be there. He could hear in T.J.’s voice how much the victory meant considering the past year’s ups and downs. Joe said his son’s decision to transfer was a difficult one, but that Alexander’s mature and state-the-facts approach to coaching, T.J.’s rekindled friendship with McCumber and his renewed confidence have all played a role in his resurgence.

“He just got away from the player that he really was,’’ Joe said. “He used to be a player who went to tournaments to win. He had become a player who went to a tournament to compete. That’s really two totally different athletes when you get in the realm of golf.

“He really lost that. I think he is starting to get that back.”


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