Four years of growth lead to NCAA title for Fred Biondi and Florida Gators
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Florida head coach J.C. Deacon was furious.
Two Octobers ago, one of Deacon’s star players, Fred Biondi, was scraping it around Isleworth Country Club, on his way to a second-round 77 in one of the biggest college tournaments of the season, when Deacon lost patience with his then-junior and ripped Biondi in front of everyone.
“I’ve probably never been madder at a player,” Deacon admits now. “But I was so passionate because I’d spent so many hours with him on the range, watching him hit these perfect shots over and over again, and then he gets on the golf course, and he wouldn’t do it, he wouldn’t trust himself.”
To Biondi’s credit, his response was immediate. He closed that tournament in 67. A couple months later, he nearly won the Latin America Amateur, finishing second, before grabbing his first two college victories that spring and eventually being named a first-team All-American.
“He got a little taste of success,” Deacon said, “and he was like, I want more of this.”
This week, Biondi got a lot more.
Not only did Biondi become Florida’s third NCAA individual champion on Monday at Grayhawk Golf Club, but two days later, the senior from Sao Paulo, Brazil, helped deliver the program its fifth NCAA team title by earning the clinching point in a 4-1 victory over Georgia Tech.
“I’m soaking this all in,” Biondi said. “I feel like winning this as a team means so much more than winning this individually. We didn’t give up one time this week. We’ve been through some battles this whole year, ups and downs, but we always woke up the next day and went right back to work.”
Despite the final score, this national championship didn’t come easy.
Since the moment that Biondi and fellow seniors Ricky Castillo and John DuBois stepped on campus in Fall 2019, the Gators have been flushed with talent. Though too often over the past few years, Florida’s potential had often been sapped by immaturity. One week, Florida would look like the best team in the country, the next far from it. And in their first two trips to Grayhawk, the Gators missed match play both times, not even making the 54-hole cut in 2021.
“It just all seemed so difficult,” DuBois said.
If things had clicked in prior seasons, the Gators usually fell back into a pattern of bad habits. But with four seniors in the starting lineup this year, including Yuxin Lin, who transferred from USC after his freshman campaign, Florida had to get more serious if it wanted to avoid another of Deacon’s talented recruiting classes graduating championship-less.
That meant holding each other more accountable.
That meant sometimes sacrificing individual wants and needs for the betterment of the team.
That meant working harder than ever, and buying into not only Deacon’s vision but also that of assistant Dudley Hart, the two-time PGA Tour winner who’s added more structure and revamped the way this program approaches development and preparation.
“These guys sacrificed their lives to get better at golf,” Deacon said. “They’d always had the talent, they just had to grow up.”
DuBois was never supposed to be a Gator, having originally committed to D-II Florida Southern. But when one of Florida’s commits backed out late, Deacon had room to add DuBois. The first couple seasons were uninspiring, as DuBois played sparingly, unable to string together three solid rounds. But then he won the SEC individual title as a junior, and he’s now considered the dad of this roster, an old soul who isn’t afraid to challenge his teammates, including the star seniors, Lin and DuBois’ All-American roommates, Biondi and Castillo. DuBois went 3-0 in match play this week, winning his final two matches on the last hole.
Lin, a two-time Asia-Pacific Amateur champion before even joining the Gators, has flashed that type of talent from the get-go; he’s just learned how to do so more consistently, recording five top-11 finishes in six starts entering nationals. Team golf has become a bigger deal to Lin, too, and this week he fought through some struggles – T-58 in stroke play, and a 6-and-5 loss to Florida State freshman Jack Bigham in the semifinals – to deliver for his squad two huge points, the clincher in the quarterfinals and the first of the final via a 4-and-3 dispatching of first-team All-American Christo Lamprecht.
Castillo’s credentials are well-known – national freshman of the year, former No. 1 amateur, a slew of deep runs at the Western and U.S. amateurs, 4-0 at the 2021 Walker Cup. “He’s the ultimate competitor,” Deacon says, “but sometimes he’s had a hard time controlling that.” The past two falls, Castillo has gone through mini slumps, with four combined finishes of 50th or worse, but this spring, he made his biggest strides in reining in his emotions, and he posted six top-11 finishes, including a T-11 at Grayhawk. Not that he didn’t get fired up this week – he did, notably kicking a ball into the desert after losing the 15th hole of his final match opposite Ross Steelman – but he harnessed that energy better, sinking a clutch putt on the third extra hole on Tuesday evening to send Florida to the final before winning Nos. 16 and 17 against Steelman to turn a 1-down deficit into a 1-up lead before Biondi clinched with Castillo standing in the 18th fairway.
Redshirt freshman Matthew Kress might’ve developed the most these past two years. Because of his unimpressive prep resumé, Kress practically had to beg Deacon to offer him a walk-on spot, and in his first ever qualifier, he snap-hooked his opening tee shot into some trees less than 100 yards away, prompting Deacon to whisper to Hart, “This kid’s got no chance.” Six rounds later, Kress would finish 37 shots behind the winner, Lin. But the kid kept at it, and he made 10 starts this season with a pair of top-10s. Though Kress didn’t showcase his best stuff this week, he still shot 1 under over his final 36 holes of stroke play and took his final match to 20 holes before falling to Bartley Forrester.
“I’m a loser at heart who’s just never really given up, and if you never give up, you can’t lose,” Kress said. “You can only lose if you quit, and my mindset was to never quit.”
And then, of course, there’s Biondi, who had won back-to-back Florida State Juniors but wasn’t a blue-chip prospect when he signed with the Gators. He didn’t do himself any early favors either, possibly missing more starting lineups than parties that first year.
“When I got to school, I was just a number on the team,” Biondi said. “I didn’t help much.”
Three years later, Biondi is the biggest team guy that Deacon’s ever coached, and, as Deacon says, “the glue that keeps us all together.” From winning three times individually to completing a finance degree, Biondi has done everything “first class,” Deacon adds. The only real hiccup this season came in late February at the Southern Highlands Collegiate in Las Vegas, where Biondi finished solo 81st and beat just three players.
Biondi remembers hitting a tee shot on the ninth hole during his second-round 80 that week before dropping to one knee and losing it.
“I was in tears,” Biondi said. “I just had nothing.”
Added Deacon: “He put so much pressure on himself, and he fell flat on his face. But lot of guys fail and just focus on the failure. He fails and then two days later he’s like, How do I make sure that doesn’t happen again?” Biondi quickly met with his sports psychologist, who reminded him: “All the great players, even when things aren’t going their way, they still believe in themselves so much and they stay calm.”
When he doubled his sixth hole during Monday’s final round of stroke play, Biondi didn’t fret, playing 2-under golf the rest of the way and watching Steelman bogey each of his final three holes to hand Biondi the NCAA individual trophy.
After getting boat-raced in his quarterfinal match by Virginia freshman Bryan Lee, 6 and 5, Biondi remained positive and earned a gritty 1-up win over Florida State’s Cole Anderson.
And on Wednesday, Biondi found himself trailing Georgia Tech freshman Hiroshi Tai at the turn before chipping to gimme range after a money tee ball at the short par-4 17th hole and hitting two confident shots on No. 18 to set up his winning birdie lag from 30 feet.
“I was getting a little emotional coming down 18,” said Castillo, who, in the fifth match of the day to reach the final hole, watched the final moments through his rangefinder. “I knew Fred had two putts to win a national championship, and I knew Fred was going to two-putt.”
When Tai conceded Biondi’s tap-in, Castillo and Deacon, who was standing next to his anchor man, shared a long embrace as the celebration ensued.
There was yelling.
There were tears.
This time, though, when Deacon finally found Biondi in the crowd, they both couldn’t have been happier.
Biondi didn’t just pull off the perfect shots when he needed them, he served as a catalyst for a six-win season, including the Gators’ first SEC title since 2011 under legendary coach Buddy Alexander, and their first national crown in 23 years.
These Gators grew up all right.
“We’re kind of a team of destiny, to be honest,” Deacon said. “The last two months, we’ve always been able to do what we’ve needed to do, to hit the shots at the right time, and sure enough, we almost ended up winning all five matches. What an unbelievable team. … These guys are tough son-of-a-guns, and I’m just so proud to be their coach.”