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Saint Leo Lions Trio Ready to Roar at Oakland Hills August 15, 2016 | Bloomfield Township, Mich. By Stuart Hall

Saint Leo University sophomore Hugo Bernard, of Canada, is seeking his third national championship in the last three months. (USGA/Chris Keane)

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When Hugo Bernard’s intentions to play golf for the University of Tennessee did not materialize, he picked up the phone and contacted Joey Savoie, his friend since their days playing the Canadian junior golf circuit.

“He sent me a text and said ‘How about Saint Leo?’” said Savoie, who was playing for NCAA Division II Saint Leo (Fla.) University, 35 miles north of Tampa-St. Petersburg. “I told him the caliber of talent is just as good [as Division I], but maybe there is just not as much. I told him, ‘Lets win an NCAA title together.’”

And that is exactly what they did, helping Saint Leo win its first NCAA Division II championship in May at Green Valley Ranch Golf Club in Denver, Colo.

“We peaked at the right time,” said Savoie, 21, whose team had previously finished second to Lynn University at both the Sunshine State Conference Championship and the NCAA South/Southeast Regional.

“So, we were all mad, because we had accumulated so many second-place finishes. We just knew it was our time to peak and we all peaked at the right time.”

Savoie, Bernard and fellow Saint Leo teammate Ryan Gendron are hopeful for a late-summer peak in this week’s 116th U.S. Amateur Championship at Oakland Hills Country Club.

Savoie, of Quebec, Canada, jokingly defers to Bernard as being the favorite among the teammates here this week. Bernard won the Division II individual title with a record 13-under 54-hole score, while Savoie finished 11th and Gendron tied for 86th.

Bernard, 21, also of Quebec, won the Canadian Amateur on Aug. 11. In early July, he won the prestigious Lord Alexander of Tunis Championship in Ottawa, setting a scoring record in the process. This will be his first USGA championship appearance.

“My game is very good,” said Bernard. “I’m hitting the ball very well, and I’m confident about this week.”

Bernard also seeks to become only the sixth player to win the NCAA title and U.S. Amateur in the same year. Jack Nicklaus (1961), Phil Mickelson (1990), Tiger Woods (1996), Ryan Moore (2004) and reigning champion Bryson DeChambeau have accomplished the feat.

“People have mentioned that to me, and it would be great, but I have a lot of work to do first,” said Bernard.

While the Saint Leo trio is playing for an individual championship, they are also playing for one of their own. On July 4, Griffin Clark, who made the putt that gave the Lions a 3-2 victory over Chico State University to win the Division II title, died in a single-vehicle accident in Virginia.

“We are inspired by our teammate,” said Savoie, who missed the cut in his first U.S. Amateur appearance a year ago. “I think he will be on our minds this week.”

Joey Savoie is one of three players from the NCAA Division II-champion Saint Leo University men's golf team in the field. (USGA/Jeff Haynes)

The emergence of Saint Leo, a private Roman Catholic liberal arts school, as a national power has been a result of some fortuitous happenstance.

In June 2013, the school hired Chris Greenwood as its first full-time coach. Soon after, Savoie, then 18, arrived at the Canadian Junior Amateur with no scholarship offers.

“Coach Greenwood called me and said, ‘Joey, would you like to come to Saint Leo?’ about a month before school started,” said Savoie, who is one of three Canadians on the roster.

In their first NCAA Championship appearance last year, the Lions finished third. This year, with Bernard added to the roster, Saint Leo shot a record 26 under, breaking the previous 54-hole mark of 16 under set by Florida Southern in 1999.

“I don’t think because we’re in D-II we are any less talented,” Bernard said. “We can play golf with anyone. I think it’s going to be a good week for us and we’re all very excited.”

Especially if they happen to peak at the right time again.

Stuart Hall is a North Carolina-based freelance writer whose work frequently appears on USGA websites.

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