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Jim Meehan: How Idaho’s Joe Sykes persevered to win Big Sky Conference golf title, join short list of UI champs

The college golf season wasn’t going as planned for Joe Sykes.

The struggle was real for the University of Idaho sophomore, by way of Littlehampton, England. The results didn’t match his meticulous approach. Like every golfer, even accomplished ones like Sykes stuck in a rough patch, it thoroughly tested his patience and the math major’s analytical mind.

Finally, months of frustration melted away as Sykes regained his form and joined a short list of history makers in program history.

Sykes finished three rounds at Wigwam Golf Club in Litchfield, Arizona, in 7-under 209 – his lowest score by nine strokes relative to par in the previous nine fall and spring tournaments – to capture the Big Sky Conference individual championship by three shots.

How rare is a conference title for a UI men’s golfer? Sykes joined Dale Faylor, who was co-champ of the 1952 Pacific Coast Conference Northern Division, and Jared du Toit, who claimed the 2015 Big Sky crown before transferring to Arizona State for his final two seasons.

“That was news to me,” Sykes said of the short list.

The best news for Sykes is the Big Sky title means his season continues May 13-15 at the Stanford Regional, one of six NCAA Championship regionals. The top score of the five individuals not on the 14 teams competing at the Stanford Regional advances to the NCAA finals May 24-29 at Omni La Costa Resort & Spa in Carlsbad, California.

“He’s a deserving kid, just one of the best kids to be around, one of the hardest workers, great teammate,” Vandals coach David Nuhn said. “Truly just a joy to have in the program. It’s impossible to find a negative thing to say about Joe.”

There wasn’t necessarily an aha moment that turned Sykes’ season around, no magical swing change or new club in the bag. He shook off six straight finishes between 47th and 71st by doing what he does best: grinding every day, turning weaknesses into strengths and maintaining belief in his game and process.

A trip home to England over the holiday break and lengthy practice sessions with younger brother Drew, an accomplished player who will play at Coastal Carolina next year, helped Sykes fine-tune his game. Joe and Drew, who is on the England Boys Team (best U18 players), traveled to Woodhall Spa Golf Club, considered the home of British amateur golf, for a week just before Christmas.

“We were lucky to get access,” Joe said. “I was disappointed where my games was at and I wanted to turn it around. No one else was up there and we got some really good work in. There are great facilities there and I brought some things to work on back here (to Moscow).”

Perhaps most importantly, Sykes started finding a comfortable middle ground between his analytical approach and playing looser on the course.

“It was mostly just short-game stuff, trying to be a bit more creative, and mental stuff as well,” he said. “There was a point (in the fall season) I was getting too technical, thinking it was my swing. I worked on trying to get a little better on each shot in practice and free me up when I would go to tournaments.”

Sykes’ scores didn’t drop immediately, but he could see improvement this spring. He had quality scores over the final 36 holes at the Torrey Pines Invitational and the Redhawk Invitational at Chambers Bay.

The week before the Big Sky Tournament, he shared first place with Boise State’s Cole Rueck at the Battle for Idaho at Hillcrest Country Club in Boise. Rueck, son of Oregon State women’s basketball coach Scott Rueck, will also play at the Stanford Regional after winning the Mountain West Conference title.

Sykes was tied for the Big Sky lead after 36 holes. He carded a 2-under 70 while others fell into contention in the final round. He was 9 under on par 5s during the tournament.

Idaho golfer Joe Sykes poses with the Big Sky championship trophy after winning the individual title on April 25 in Litchfield Park, Ariz.  (Courtesy of Idaho Athletics)

Idaho golfer Joe Sykes poses with the Big Sky championship trophy after winning the individual title on April 25 in Litchfield Park, Ariz. (Courtesy of Idaho Athletics)

One of the best moments of Sykes’ season came at the Idaho-hosted Bandon Dunes Championship in March. Heavy storms washed out the tournament, but the rain didn’t prevent Sykes’ dad, Chris, from traveling to Bandon, Oregon, to surprise his son before a team dinner.

“Only Sam Johnson (a sophomore teammate from Congleton, England) and Nuhn knew he was heading over,” said Sykes, who looked completely stunned in a cell phone video as his dad walked up outside the restaurant. “I didn’t really know how to react. It was an awesome surprise.”

Sykes, knowing he wanted to play college golf in the US, signed up with an agency when he was 14 or 15. That led to conversations with Nuhn and other programs, but the Vandals already had an English player on the roster during Sykes’ recruiting process.

“He had bigger teams looking at him,” Nuhn said, “but he wanted to go to a place where he could contribute and play right away.”

Littlehampton and Moscow are roughly the same size, but there are a few distinct differences.

One of his UI teammates “was a big hunter and that’s miles apart from what I’m used to back home. The food is better over here, portions are bigger, which I don’t mind,” said Sykes, acknowledging a weakness for ice cream. “Having a few internationals (on the team), I was able to adapt pretty quickly.”

Sykes placed ninth at the Big Sky Championship last season while earning conference freshman of the year honors. He’s playing his best golf at the right time to cap a bumpy sophomore year.

“The goal is pro after college,” he said. “I just love the game, everything it has to offer. I definitely want to give it go whether it’s back home or here. But I still have two years left here.”