Tied for the lead with two holes to play in the Hootie at Bulls Bay Intercollegiate, Matt NeSmith, perhaps the most heralded recruit in USC golf history, bogeyed the 17th hole.
“Gut check time,” Gamecocks men’s golf coach Bill McDonald said
NeSmith responded by birdieing the final hole and winning the playoff to launch a sizzling streak that he will carry into the NCAA tournament’s Brementon (Wash.) Regional that begins Thursday.
“Winning that tournament freed him up,” McDonald said. “He had such a great junior career that everyone expected him to win quicker. He had had some close calls and put a lot of pressure on himself.”
His name is prominent in the USC record book and his contributions played a large role in the Gamecocks’ success during his three seasons.
But that first win ... ? Relief and opportunity. No more doubts.
NeSmith said the victory at Bulls Bay removed the weight of the world from his shoulders, and he proved that in his next start, blitzing the field to win the SEC individual title by six strokes at 14-under-par 196.
“Knowing I had to make birdie and doing it ... that meant so much,” the USC junior said. “Make it or go home. I made it and that’s such a confidence booster. I can just relax and go play.”
He did that in the SEC, and he plans for that to continue in the NCAA regional. The regional will be played on a course that brings back great memories. In the 2010 U.S. Junior at the Gold Mountain Golf Club’s Olympic Course, he finished 10th in the 36-hole qualifying for match play.
“And (teammate) Will (Starke) did better,” NeSmith said. “He finished second and then made the quarterfinals in match play.”
The combination – familiarization, NeSmith and Starke both on course to break the school single-season scoring record, national tournament experience, four players with sub-72 scoring averages – bodes well for the Gamecocks, the regional top seed and the nation’s sixth ranked team.
“We’re pretty excited,” NeSmith said. “We came so close in the NCAAs last year and we’ve used that for motivation this year. We know what to expect.”
The Gamecocks have won five of nine starts with a tie for second, two thirds and a fourth rounding out the streak.
NeSmith became the second USC player to win the SEC individual title, and he has finished in the top 20 in seven of the team’s 10 tournaments.
“He’s played great; there’s no other way to describe his game,” McDonald said.
He generally has played great since he developed a passion for the game playing with his father Darren and getting hooked on golf on his first trip to the Masters at age 10.
“And I think the best is yet to come,” McDonald said.
What: NCAA Men’s Golf Bremerton (Wash.) Regional
Where: Olympic Course at Gold Mountain Golf Club
At stake: Top five teams advance to NCAA Championship
Seeds: No. 1 USC; No. 2 Washington; No. 3 Southern California; No. 4 Baylor; No. 5 UAB
1. Matt NeSmith, jr.
2. Will Starke, jr.
3. Will Murphy, sr.
4. Caleb Sturgeon, sr.
5. Sean Kelly, jr.
MATT NESMITH BIO
Hometown: North Augusta
At USC this season: First-team All-SEC. Won SEC individual championship and Hootie at Bulls Bay individual title. Stroke average of 70.07 ranks fifth in SEC, 12th nationally and is second-lowest for a season in school history. Eleven rounds in the 60s, including past seven.
Prior to South Carolina: Won the 2012 Rolex Tournament of Champions and the 2012 Footjoy Invitational, earning a sponsor's exemption to play in the 2012 PGA Wyndham Championship. First team AJGA All-American. Ranked No. 1 in the Golfweek and Polo junior rankings.