No. 23 USC men’s team hopes to keep improving in spring season

02/15/2014 11:58 PM

02/15/2014 11:59 PM

Although the recent weather might suggest otherwise, the college season cranks up this month and coach Bill McDonald likes the possibilities for his South Carolina Gamecocks.

Reasons for optimism begin with a deep and battle-tested squad. There is the experienced gained in last spring’s strong finish. Add an outstanding fall season — two firsts and a second in four tournaments — and USC heads to this week’s spring opener in Texas loaded with positives.

“We made great strides last year and I’m anxious to see if we can carry it into this spring,” said McDonald, whose team goes into the spring ranked 23rd in the Golfweek poll. “If we play like we did in the fall, we will move up.”

The Gamecocks will be missing Dykes Harbin, who graduated, and they lost junior Sean Kelly, a two-year starter, for the season after wrist surgery.

The lineup, with sophomore Matt NeSmith and junior Caleb Sturgeon at the top, remains strong.

Junior Will Murphy and sophomore Will Starke played in all the fall tournaments, and junior Blaine Woodruff earned the fifth spot for the Bayou City Classic in Houston.

NeSmith posted top-10 finishes in three of the fall tournaments, Sturgeon earned an individual title, Starke had a pair of top-10s, and Murphy had one.

“We had one of the most competitive inter-team matches since I’ve been here,” said McDonald, in his seventh season as coach.

“The guys are really pushing themselves. Starke has shown a lot of progress and Murphy has steadily improved. Blaine won our qualifier, then played well in Savannah (in an individual tournament.) I like our quality and our depth.”

Depth became important with Kelly’s surgery. He hurt his wrist in a practice round for last year’s regional and played through pain in the final two tournaments. He sat out the fall events, but the rest did not help and he underwent the operation.

“People asked me if I can’t play but five guys, why do I have 10 on the team?” McDonald said. “That’s why. After Sean hurt his wrist, we had to fly Murphy in to be available if Sean couldn’t play. Literally, 30 minutes before tee time, we had two guys warming up on the range.”

The caliber of competition will be stronger in the spring. After the Bayou City tourney, South Carolina plays in the Palmetto (Aiken), Seahawk Invitational (Wilmington, N.C.), Hootie at Bulls Bay (Awendaw), and the Augusta State Invitational (Augusta), followed by the SEC Championship at St. Simons Island, Ga. The NCAA regional and national tourneys will be played in May.

A year ago, the Gamecocks finished strong with at second in the SEC, and tied for second in the NCAA Regional in Columbus, Ohio, before slumping to 27th in the national championship.

“I’m looking forward to the season,” McDonald said. “I really like our team.”

Chip shots

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Mount Vintage Golf Club, a 27-hole facility near North Augusta that has been ranked among the top 50 courses in the state, has closed due to financial woes, the Aiken Standard reported. ...

Jackson Hughes Jr. of Greenville was elected president of the Carolinas Golf Association at the organization’s annual meeting in Pinehurst. A real estate developer, he played at Wofford. Gene Spencer (Columbia) was elected secretary and Dan O’Connell (Spartanburg) was elected treasurer. ...

The Heritage Classic Foundation presented a $30,000 check from the PGA Tour to Memory Matters, a Hilton Head Island charity named the Tour’s charity of the year. ...

Four more members of “Team RBC” — Luke Donald, Ernie Els, Hunter Mahan and Matt Kuchar — have committed to play in the RBC Heritage at Harbour Town on April 17-20.

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