Bulle, Smith lead Blue Raiders in key month as careers wind down

Duo has elevated program to NCAA contender

April 18, 2010 · Athletic Communications

MURFREESBORO, Tenn. - Two of the cornerstones in the recent success of the Middle Tennessee men's golf program will close out their spectacular careers in the next two months, as the season winds down for the Blue Raiders.

Kent Bulle and Craig Smith will lead the team on Monday and Tuesday at the Crooked Stick Invitational in Carmel, Indiana, which is the final wrap-up before the Sun Belt Conference championship the following week. Twelve teams will be there, including Top 10 ranked Illinois.

Smith was one of the first heralded recruits to come to Middle Tennessee in several years. Recruited out of Springfield, Tennessee's Davidson Academy in 2005, Smith was red-shirted his first year, then made a huge impact in his red-shirt freshman season of 2006-07.

He was the 2007 low medalist at the Sun Belt Conference championships, was selected on the All-SBC team, and was named Player of the Year in the league. He also played in the US Amateur that year, becoming the first Blue Raider to ever make the cut into the match-play events final round of 64.

Smith was on his way to a solid sophomore season when back injuries hampered his play, then finally sidelined him before he could defend his SBC championship. He didn't swing a golf club for six months, but got back in action last spring. As one might suspect, Smith struggled at first, but came on at then end of the season. He was a big part of Middle Tennessee's stunning win in the 2009 Callaway Collegiate, running the table in his three matches.

Head Coach Whit Turnbow recruited Smith when he was an assistant to Head Coach Johnny Moore. He called Smith "one of the most resilient guys we have ever had".

"He has fought back injuries, and he was also diagnosed with Thoracic Outlet Syndrome about six months ago, a deal that makes his arms go numb sometimes," said Turnbow. "He's played hurt a lot, and that just shows you the type of guts that kid's got, and how much he wants to see this program succeed. We are so fortunate to have him around."

Turnbow also recruited Bulle, thanks to former Middle Tennessee women's golfer Taryn Durham, who encouraged Turnbow to take a look at Bulle. He and Durham are both from Glasgow, Kentucky.

Bulle has won three tournaments, including the prestigious Aldila Scenic Invitational last fall, and his stroke average has gone down every year. In almost four full seasons, it is an excellent 73.6, and is an even 72 this year. Bulle was a main cog in Middle Tennessee's thrilling run to the NCAA finals in 2008 and has led many last-day charges for his team to win or place higher in tournaments. He, like Smith, also won all three of his individual matches in the 2009 Callaway Match Play.

"Kent is a competitor. He is never satisfied. Even if he plays well and finishes fifth, it irks him that he didn't win. He is a guy that wants, and expects, to win every time he tees it up," said Turnbow. "Kent has really matured every year. I remember when he showed up as a freshman. He did not have a clue what he was doing, as most freshmen don't, but to see the maturation process over the last four years in Kent, from this 18-year-old kid to the 22-year-old man who now leads this team, it's been a fun thing to watch."

Turnbow noted that both Bulle and Smith had been excellent leaders and good citizens. They both have had problems along the way, but Turnbow called them both "resilient."

"These two guys can remember when we finished last in the Sun Belt tournament in their freshman year," added Turnbow. " They have seen how far we've come, and they have been a huge part of it because both of them were active early in their careers here. They have helped build this thing, along with Rick (Cochran) and Chas (Narramore), and all four hold a special place in my heart because they have seen the whole thing grow. These guys have seen the pinnacle, and it's been a heck of a ride."

Cochran and Narramore were recruited the same year as Smith, but did not red-shirt, and Bulle came the following year. Narramore is now an assistant coach on the team.

Middle Tennessee is coming off of an impressive, true-to-form win in the Red Wolf Classic at Arkansas State. They came from 11 shots down on the final day to overtake Central Arkansas and win by two strokes, shooting a team aggregate six-under-par 282. Coming from behind has become a strength for Middle Tennessee the past couple of years.

"Coach tells us all the time about being mentally tough and we have a reputation of coming on strong when we are behind in tournaments," said Bulle. "We all just believe in ourselves and in our teammates, and trust each other enough to know that we are never out of a tournament.

"We go out and play well early, and those teams ahead of us are checking their phones and looking at Golfstat, and they see we are making a charge. They try to switch from conservative mode to attack mode, but that is hard to do in the middle of a round. We made up 11 strokes on Central Arkansas real quick, and had the lead by the end of the fourth hole."

Smith feels like the Blue Raiders have a great chance of doing well at Crooked Stick on Monday, and at the SBC championship the next week.

"I think the whole team is coming on," said Smith, "We have two really solid guys in Kent and Jason Millard, who shot a 66 in the final round at Arkansas, and two very good young players in Hunter Green and Brad Simons. I think we are really going to do well. I believe we have one of the best teams we've ever had."

Turnbow feels like his team got a lot of momentum by winning at Arkansas State, which is what he said the team needed to do heading into the Sun Belt tournament.

"Jason Millard played fabulous all week, and he gained confidence. So did Brad Simons. He and Kent tied for 10th. Kent didn't really play well, and still beat 90 players. That tells you how talented he is," said Turnbow.

"It's going to be a real challenge in Indiana. They will have the course set up tough. We have a goal of going undefeated in April, but it's going to be a tough task. But, again, the whole schedule is set up to peak the last week in April at the Sun Belt Championships."

Follow the Blue Raiders on Twitter @MTAthletics for continued updates.