Since they fell one stroke short of advancing to match-play in last season’s NCAA men’s golf championship, USC has focused on strong tournament finishes with a national title atop their list of goals.
Then, with the moment at hand to return to the nationals 10 days ago, the Gamecocks struggled.
“I had an uneasy feeling all week,” coach Bill McDonald said in looking back at the regional tournament in Bremerton, Wash. His team, top seed in the tournament and sixth nationally, stood on the brink of failing to qualify for the nationals midway the final round.
“That changed in one hole,” McDonald said.
Instead of falling short, Carolina blistered the back nine of Gold Mountain Golf Club’s Olympic Course. They played those holes in 13-under par in what McDonald called an incredible display of golf, and the Gamecocks head into the NCAA Championship that begins Friday oozing with confidence.
The Gamecocks join 29 other teams, including rival Clemson, in the national tourney in Bradenton, Fla. The teams will play 18-hole stroke-play rounds Friday-Sunday, with the low 15 playing 18 holes Monday. The low eight qualify for the match-play portion of the tournament that crowns the team champion.
“Going from on the bubble of not making the national tournament to almost winning the regional gives us a lot to build on,” Will Murphy, one of two USC seniors, said. “We have closed well all year, and that has been an emphasis from the start. We have to finish strong, and we did in the region.”
The spark in the regional, McDonald said, came on the 12th hole, a downhill par-3 that measured 245 yards and played that day at about 225 yards. Caleb Sturgeon, the team’s other senior, set the stage by hitting his tee shot to within one foot for a tap-in birdie. In the next group, junior Will Starke’s tee shot took a wicked kick left into a tough lie, but he holed his chip for birdie. Finally, junior Matt NeSmith rolled home a 20-foot birdie putt.
“We needed something positive to happen, and it did,” McDonald said. “The guys had been under pressure not to play poorly. There was a little sense of dread. But Caleb hit a great shot and Will (from the tee) saw that. Then Matt saw Will chip in. That’s contagious.”
The second-place finish in the regional gave the Gamecocks their 10th top-five finish in 11 tournaments this season – a school record – and McDonald calls this squad his best at Carolina.
“Depth,” McDonald said in terming this team his best. “In the past, we have had two or three outstanding players at the top, but we’re strong this year from top to bottom. Really, we could go seven players deep and not lose anything.”
NCAA MEN’S GOLF CHAMPIONSHIP
WHERE: The Concession Golf Club, Bradenton, Fla.
THE COURSE: 7,483 yards, par 72.
THE SEEDING: 1. Florida State; 2. Texas; 3. Arizona State; 4. Illinois; 5. Vanderbilt; 6. South Carolina; 7. LSU; 8. Oregon; 9. Texas Tech; 10. Georgia Tech; 11. Stanford; 12. Oklahoma; 13. South Florida; 14. UAB; 15. Charlotte; 16. Washington; 17. Auburn; 18. UCLA; 19. Southern Cal; 20. Oklahoma State; 21. Virginia; 22. SMU; 23. TCU; 24. San Diego State; 25. UNLV; 26. Georgia; 27. Houston; 28. Clemson; 29. Florida; 30. Duke.
USC LINEUP: Junior Will Starke (70.03 scoring average); junior Matt NeSmith (70.06); senior Will Murphy (71.70); senior Caleb Sturgeon (72.00) and junior Sean Kelly (72.47).
TV: The Golf Channel. Monday, 4-7 p.m.; Tuesday, 10:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. and 3:30-7 p.m.; Wednesday, 3-7 p.m.