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Hoping to Ace the Course: Hartford Alum Continues Steady Improvement

Joe Toland, former Hartford High and current University of Charlotte golfer, in action this past spring. (University of Charlotte photograph)

Joe Toland, former Hartford High and current University of Charlotte golfer, in action this past spring. (University of Charlotte photograph)

Joe Toland watched last weekend’s U.S. Open men’s golf championship with interest. Not only from a fan’s standpoint, but from that of someone whose dream it is to one day join the PGA Tour.

“I like to see how they handle themselves coming down the stretch, or making a bogey or a double,” said Toland, a Hartford High graduate and current Lebanon resident who recently completed his junior season at the University of Charlotte (N.C.). “How they deal with the adversity and bounce back. That seems to be what separates the good from the great.”

Toland isn’t great yet, not even at the college level. But he continues to chip away at mastering the game he’s played since he was 5. He’s moved steadily into the mix for the 49ers, who won their seventh Atlantic-10 Conference championship in eight years this spring.

Toland finished tied for 14th at the conference tournament, finishing the second day with two birdies and three bogeys during his final 18 holes. He was 62nd out of 75 golfers during NCAA’s Columbus (Ohio) Regional, where Charlotte finished ninth out of 13 teams.

“Joe’s a very mature young man and that carries over to the golf course,” said second-year 49ers coach Ryan Cabbage, a former Auburn assistant. “He doesn’t ride lot of highs and lows and he doesn’t carry near the frustration that a lot of college players do. We talk here about playing with no expectations, like you were just out with your friends.”

That’s not easy to do in college golf’s fiercely competitive climate. Just making the travel squad is a battle at Charlotte, where nine players battle during the week for five slots on the weekend’s competition roster. Finished first last weekend? That’s great, but it doesn’t guarantee you’ll be playing seven days later.

“Most teams do some sort of qualifying, and that was one of the biggest things I liked about Charlotte,” Toland said. “I knew I could earn my spot every single week. Nobody gets complacent.”

Toland finished second at both the Vermont high school championships and the Vermont Amateur during 2010, when he graduated from Hartford. He had sent out numerous letters to Division I golf programs earlier in his prep career and had attracted attention from the likes of the universities of Hartford (Conn.) and Rhode Island. He bumped up his status by advancing to match play at the 2009 U.S. Junior Amateur in New Jersey.

“Being at the U.S. Junior Amateur got me on the national map,” Toland said. “I wanted to play for a program with better weather, which is the goal of almost any high school player from Vermont or New Hampshire. You want to be able to play for more than six months of the year.”

Toland got lots of general playing time once he arrived in North Carolina, but not as much as he would have liked with the 49ers. Still, he kept the development in perspective.

“I’m not sure I played less than I expected,” he said. “Just being away from home is definitely a transition, plus you’re working out at 6 a.m. a couple days a week, practicing in a new routine and you have a packed class schedule and new teammates.

“Even the grass makes a difference, because the courses here all have Bermuda.”

Toland played only nine competitive rounds as a freshman, with an average score of 74.9. His rounds increased to 14 and his average dropped to 74.3 as a sophomore and this season he played 29 rounds and averaged 74.0 while competing in 10 of Charlotte’s 11 events, finishing in the top 20 four times.

At a California tournament hosted by Pacific University, Toland posted a career-low 7-under 65 and finished tied for seventh with a three-day score of 203. That 65 tied him with seven others for the second-lowest 18-hole round in program history.

Cabbage said Toland, a 5-foot-5, 165-pound psychology major, “isn’t going to overpower a golf course by hitting a lot of par-5s in two shots, but he understands that.

“He’s not a guy who’s going to wow you on the driving range, but he’s a guy who’s hard to beat, because he’s got a nice short game and wonderful hands and a good touch around the green.”

If Toland’s dream of playing golf for money is to become a reality, however, his short game will have to become even better. The PGA Tour increasingly features superior athletes who do make those par-5 greens in two shots. And they aren’t too shabby once they get there.

“He’s going to have to become truly outstanding as a putter and wedge player,” Cabbage said. “If he does that, then he has a chance to become successful at the next level.”

Said Toland: “I wouldn’t say it’s a crazy long shot, but it’s certainly not a given to make the big time.”

For now, Toland is working part time at a West Lebanon golf store and readying himself for a busy summer on the links. The Hanover Country Club member tackles the New Hampshire Amateur on July 9, followed by the New England Amateur and a qualifier for the U.S. Amateur. Ten days later, it’s into New Hampshire Amateur stroke play and, should he qualify for the U.S. Amateur, that’s in early August. Then it’s back to school and practice with the 49ers.

“If you’re playing well, there’s no such thing as burnout,” Toland said. “But if you’re struggling, then the harder rounds become that much harder.”

Tris Wykes can be reached at twykes@vnews.com or 603-727-3227.