Florida uses depth to contend at Sea Best Invitational

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Florida freshman Ricky Castillo watches his putt at the ninth hole of the TPC Sawgrass Dye's Valley Course. The putt missed but Castillo went on to shoot 67 in the round to finish in a tie for third. [Garry Smits/Florida Times-Union]

Garry Smits, Florida Times-Union

PONTE VEDRA BEACH — Florida golf coach J.C. Deacon said his team is coming off “one of the best offseasons,” in the six years he’s been in Gainesville.

It followed one of the team’s worst fall performances during the same span.

However, the Gators had the look of a team with a new attitude Monday in the first two rounds of the Sea Best Invitational at the TPC Sawgrass Dye’s Valley Course.

Led by freshmen Ricky Castillo and Fred Biondi, and junior John Axelsen, the Gators shot 6-under-par 554 and trail Texas A&M by one shot entering Tuesday’s final round.

Biondi carried the load in the morning round and Castillo picked up the baton in the afternoon — with Axelsen playing steady the entire day.

Biondi had a 4-under 66 in the first round, with birdies on three of his last five holes, and shot 71 in the afternoon. Castillo had a 70 in the morning, then birdied three of the four par-3 holes on the Valley for a 67. Axelsen was one of only three players in the field to shoot under par in both rounds, with scores of 68-69.

It added up to 3-under-par 137 for all three Gator players, and a tie for third behind William Paysse of Texas A&M (71-63—134) and Reid Bedell of USC-Upstate (69-66—135).

Gator freshman John Dubois, playing as an individual, shot 69-70—139 to tie for 10th.

Florida made the NCAA tournament last year for the third time in the last four years and Deacon was welcoming a strong recruiting class led by Castillo and DuBois, with Biondi coming off a redshirt season.

But the Gators finished seventh twice, 10th and 13th in fall tournaments, hardly up to the UF norm. Their cumulative score in relation to par in the fall: 67-over. Plus, Florida hasn’t won a tournament since the 2017 NCAA regional.

“We got our butts kicked in the fall, no question about it,” Deacon said. “But it’s gotten to the point where they have something to prove. They’ve been closing the [UF course] at night, playing a ton of matches and I haven’t heard anything from their academic advisors so they’re taking care of that. We’re a good team. Sometimes I have to remind them how good they can be.”

Biondi said it was a teamwide lack of consistency that was mostly to blame in the fall.

“We have good players but we were only getting one or two guys playing good and the other three pretty awful,” Biondi said. “We know we’re better than that. We showed that today but it’s only two rounds.”

The Gators have usually found the Sea Best Invitational to be a nice kick-start to the spring season. Florida is the only team that has won multiple titles in the 12-year history of the tournament, with championships in 2011, 2012, 2016 and 2017.

The Aggies were led by redshirt freshman William Paysse, who bounced back from a 71 in the morning round (with four bogeys, three of them because of tee shots that found water) to shoot 63 in the second round. Beginning at the fifth hole in the shotgun start, Paysse made two early birdies at Nos. 6 and 8, then birdied six of eight holes during one stretch, highlighted by a chip-in at No. 17.

Teammate Walker Lee (70-68—138) is tied for sixth.