DURHAM — One might think that opening a collegiate golf career against some of the best teams in the area — on a rival’s course, no less — would be at least a little intimidating.
For the North Carolina men’s golf team's first-years, however, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Thanks in no small part to its new additions, the team tied with Duke for second-out-of-13 participants and started the season strong in the Rod Myers Invitational in Durham this weekend. Penn State won the event with a score of 12-under par, with the Tar Heels and Blue Devils both close behind at 10-under-par.
The tournament was hosted by the Blue Devils at the Washington Duke Inn & Golf Club and gave fans their first look at first-years Luis Castro, Ryan Burnett and Doug Ergood.
The duo of Burnett and Ergood earned starting spots in their first collegiate event and impressed immediately with scores of 68 and 69, respectively, in the opening round on Saturday. They were the first UNC first-years to shoot in the 60s in the same round since Ben Griffin and William Register in 2015. That pair would go on to become two of the most successful golfers in UNC history.
Burnett’s 68 was the best season-opening round by a Tar Heel since Bailey Patrick in 2013, and the best season-opener by a first-year since Kevin O’Connell’s five-under-par-67 in 2007. Burnett, a Lafeyette, Calif., native, punctuated the round with a scintillating eagle from 92 yards on the seventh hole, a par-5. He would finish five-under-par for the weekend, which put him in a tie for third place in the tournament.
“It was really cool," Burnett said. "I’ve been playing tournament golf for a long time, so it didn’t feel too different besides the fact that you’re representing a team, but it felt really good to put a good number on the board and help the team.”
In the second round, sophomore Ryan Gerard, a Raleigh native, led the way with a four-under-par-68. UNC’s young talent helped the club shoot a combined 10-under-par for the first two rounds, and the Tar Heels were in second place at the end of Saturday.
“Just go do our thing, play as well as we can, give ourselves an opportunity coming down the stretch and see what happens,” Gerard said of his team's strategy down the stretch.
He was also impressed with the first-years in their initial outing in North Carolina blue.
“Our three freshmen, they’re really incredible," Gerard said. "They’re hardworking, they’ll never quit, they show up every single day ready to get after it… they’re gonna be a big part of what we do as a program for the next four years.”
The team entered Sunday’s final round one stroke behind Penn State and six strokes ahead of third-place Duke and was in great position to grab control of the tournament.
And the squad played well. The Tar Heels shot dead even at 288, better than the vast majority of the field. Duke was able to get hot in the final round, however, shooting an eight-under-par-280 as a team. Penn State, meanwhile, held serve with a one-under-287 in the final round to win the tournament.
Junior Austin Hitt finished tied for sixth with a four-under-par for the tournament, while Ergood finished one-under-par to finish tied for 12th.
Head coach Andrew DiBitetto was charged up by the performances from his first-years.
“We’re really excited about our young guys," DiBitetto said. "We’re really excited about the entire team but especially the young guys. We feel like we have a group that has the work ethic, they have the mindset, they have the attitude to do some really nice things this year."
The team will look to keep the early-season momentum when it travels to Kentucky for the Louisville Cardinal Challenge this weekend. Burnett seemed to speak for the team when talking about his excitement for the future.
“Going forward, I think this just makes the expectations even higher than they were," he said. "We lost three of the four best players to ever play golf at UNC last year, but we also have a really good group of freshmen.
"Everyone coming back got better, too, so I think if we keep working hard we can be as good as we want to be.”