After broken leg, TCU golfer uses downtime to study teammates, improve his game

Posted Sunday, Apr. 21, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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Big 12 Championship (at Prairie Dunes Country Club, Hutchinson, Kan.) Monday: 36 holes Tuesday: 18 holes Wednesday: 18 holes The lowest four scores out of each five-man team over each 18-hole round will determine the team champion. Notables: As of last week’s NCAA Golfweek rankings, six of the Big 12’s nine teams rank in the top 50: No. 3 Texas, No. 6 TCU, No. 14 Oklahoma State, No. 30 Oklahoma, No. 36 Texas Tech, No. 43 Baylor. The others are Iowa State (94), Kansas (98), and Kansas State (111).

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Looking back, it was the break that Eli Cole needed.

And it came courtesy of a serious break, as in a broken leg in July 2011.

The TCU golfer, who in his senior season has played the best golf of his life, was playing a pickup soccer match at a rented-out Rose Bowl during a friend’s 21st birthday celebration when an opponent slid into his leg, snapping both his right tibia and fibula.

Cole, who who grew up in Beverly Hills, Calif., was rushed to a hospital where he had the first of three surgeries to repair his leg.

“You’re kind of in shock for a minute and you don’t really feel anything, but the minute it happened I just immediately started thinking about golf and what it would mean,” he said. “I tried to stand up and my ankle went up to my knee.”

Cole knew his senior season was in jeopardy during a month confined to his bed. He redshirted his senior season while slowly rehabilitating with the help of TCU head trainer Chris Hall and assistant strength and conditioning coach Stephen Gephardt. He also leaned heavily on his talented teammates and immersed himself in studying the mental approach to golf and examining how players close out tournaments.

He quizzed teammate Julien Brun, ranked the fourth-best college golfer in the country by Golfweek, on his mental approach. He learned how to prepare for tournaments from Swedish teammates Daniel Jennevret and Pontus Gad.

“Those guys were extremely supportive,” he said. “I had no chance to make a full recovery without all the support. It was incredible how many people were helping me and how much they were helping me.”

The results have been striking for Cole as he and TCU compete in the Big 12 Championship, Monday through Wednesday at Prairie Dunes Country Club in Hutchinson, Kan.

“I just learned a ton from their demeanor on the course and the decisions they make in certain situations,” Cole said. “Especially the Swedish guys, they taught me how to get my body prepared for tournaments, and Julien taught me how to get my mind prepared because he’s just an expert at that.”

But it was a long road back for Cole, who eventually made his way out to the putting green despite being warned to take it slow. He didn’t walk an entire golf course for eight months and was still limping when he played his first tournament in May 2012 since the injury. He played great, including a 66 in the final round.

“That was the best result of my life,” he said. “I’d never really done that before.”

Still, Cole needed another surgery in June 2012 when his leg hadn’t healed correctly. Again, Cole bounced back and the next month he advanced to match play at the U.S. Amateur tournament in Colorado, which attracts the top amateurs in the world, and is a barometer, TCU coach Bill Montigel said, of whether a young golfer has taken his game to a higher level.

“He not only did that but he made the cut,” said Montigel, who remembers Cole insisting on learning from the best players on the team when he arrived at TCU five years ago. “He was never scared of competition. He’d always ask, ‘When are we going to bring in another good player?’ When he was a freshman a lot of times he didn’t qualify [for a tournament], but he just loved it. He couldn’t wait for the next chance he got to play with good players. He’s the kind of guy you just love to have on your team.”

Cole had a third surgery between TCU’s first two tournaments in September, and when the spring season commenced in January, it was clear his year studying the game and learning from his teammates had paid off. He has four top-10 finishes this spring and another 13th-place finish.

“He’s a guy who took advantage of all of his resources, and a lot of times the best resources are your teammates,” Montigel said. “There’s no doubt he’s playing his best right now.”

He’s one of the reasons TCU ranks sixth in the country and why the Horned Frogs are legitimate contenders for an NCAA title.

TCU, however, will be without freshman Paul Barjon, who is recovering from a hand injury after winning a tournament in California three weeks ago. Sophomore Sarosh Adi will play for Barjon this week.

Brun has won three tournaments this season as a sophomore, giving him six career wins. That dwarfs the previous record of two career wins for a TCU golfer.

“They’ve been incredibly consistent,” Montigel said. “The one thing we’ve always tried to sell our program on is, how good are you going to be late in the season when it comes time for regionals or the NCAAs? So I never really like to make many comparisons anyway, but that’s when you’ll be able to tell how they stack up.”

Regardless of how the postseason goes for TCU, there’s no question that Cole has turned his break into a career-changing moment. He graduated in December and hopes to use eight years of Japanese study by playing professionally in Japan a year from now.

“I’ve never used it except at a sushi restaurant, so I would really love to try to use it,” said Cole, who is fluent in Japanese.

Cole and his teammates have been targeting this postseason run for more than a year as a moment that could be theirs. After a great season, titles are there for the taking.

“It’s a credit to everybody and all the hard work they’ve put in throughout the year,” Cole said. “Even last year we were all talking about this year and targeting this year as our chance. Everything seemed to come together this year. Everybody has been preparing for this postseason stretch so we’re just really excited we have the opportunity to maybe do something special for TCU.”

Stefan Stevenson, 817-390-7760 Twitter: @FollowtheFrogs

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