South Carolina’s men’s golf team struggled for find its “A” game at an early March tournament in Florida - and darn near came home with a victory.
“I’m thinking, ‘We’re not playing our best and we’re right in it,’ ” coach Bill McDonald said. “We almost won the tournament and I told (assistant coach) Don (Hill), ‘We’re pretty good.’ ”
The Gamecocks proved their coach a prophet and get an opportunity to illustrate how good they can be next week in the NCAA Championship at the Capital City Club near Atlanta.
In earning their first berth in the national championship tournament since 2009, the Gamecocks improved steadily and finished with a flourish. They battled No. 2 Alabama to the wire before placing second in the SEC tournament and followed up with another second-place showing in the NCAA Regional in Columbus, Ohio.
Top-ranked California headlines the field of 30 in the NCAAs that features both stroke and match play. The teams play three rounds of stroke play Tuesday-Thursday and the top eight advance to match play to decide the title.
“(The championship) can’t get here soon enough,” McDonald said. “I really like the way we’re playing. We’ve had multiple guys come through and that’s what it’s going to take (to be successful) in Atlanta.”
Senior Dykes Harbin, sophomore Caleb Sturgeon and freshman Matt NeSmith formed Carolina’s “Big Three” all season, and sophomore Sean Kelly and freshman Will Starke delivered in the regional.
“Will played incredible golf early (with rounds of 68 and 73) and Sean got us a first-round 72 with an injured wrist,” McDonald said. “We didn’t know if Sean would be able to play and flew (sophomore) Will Murphy in if we needed him.”
The Gamecocks needed those contributions with Harbin (73-80) and Sturgeon (75-75) struggling in the first two rounds. Both came back stroke in the final round with 72s. And NeSmith, after an opening 75, finished 71-68 and tied for second individually.
“Everyone contributed and the ‘Big Three’ stepped up when we really needed them,” the coach said. “I really feel good about the way we’re playing.”
NeSmith (72.85) leads in scoring average followed by Harbin (72.94), Sturgeon (73.36), Starke (74.33) and Kelly (75.06). Harbin and Sturgeon had won individual titles, and NeSmith has seven top -10s in 11 starts.
The performance in the NCAA regionals allowed the Gamecocks to play “a golf course that should be good for us” in the NCAAs, he said. “Drive three hours and compete for the national championship . . . there’s nothing bad about that.”
In 11 tournaments this year, USC won one, finished second in four and third in two others.“We have had a really good season,” McDonald said. “We have come to expect to play well.”