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USC men’s golf team maps out opportunities and challenges of NCAA tournament draw

The men’s NCAA tournament begins this week
The men’s NCAA tournament begins this week AP

The South Carolina men’s golf team spent the fall season going nowhere fast and appropriately mired in the national rankings. The spring’s first tournament suggested more of the same.

Suddenly, though, the Gamecocks began to sizzle. Their tournament finishes looked like a miniature golf scorecard — 1, 3, 1, 2, 1 — and they rocketed up the ranking charts.

Next comes the NCAA regional Monday through Wednesday in Pullman, Washington, the steppingstone to the national championship tournament, and coach Bill McDonald likes how his team has developed.

“The biggest (change) really happened between Houston (the spring-opening All-America Intercollegiate) and Palmetto a couple of weeks later,” McDonald said. “We started as a team getting a lot better with our body language and handling the ups and down that come with playing competitive golf a lot better.

“I was really disappointed in the guys in Houston for just bad body language. I wouldn’t say, ‘bad attitude;’ we have great kids and they work hard. Improvement was a combination of them buying in to that type of thing and the seniors really starting to lead practices, making them more competitive. The team I saw at Palmetto was completely different.”

Seniors Scot Stevens (70.7 scoring average), Will Miles (70.7) and Ryan Stachler (71.2) joined juniors Caleb Proveaux (71.55) and Jamie Wilson (72.5) in the lineup most of the spring. Freshman Ryan Hall (70.8), out for six tournaments with an injury, will replace Wilson for the regional in what McDonald called “a really tough decision, a gut call, because Jamie has played well.”

The Gamecocks, ranked 17th in the latest Golfstat poll, are seeded third in the Pullman regional.

“The biggest things for us are the three-hour time change and the different grasses,” McDonald said. “Different grass is the biggest challenge. Poa annua is so different from what we play on here, bermuda or sometimes bent.

“We’ll get out there early, get adjusted time-wise and try to do as much practice as we can. We will be relying on the experience of the players and also having a real quality practice round.”

The key to success, the coach said, “will be adjusting on the fly. From what I have found out about the course, if the wind blows, it’s going to be a grind. If it doesn’t, we have to be prepared to make some birdies. We’ve been really good this spring about adjusting, and we need to do that again.”

The SEC championship interrupted the team’s streak of top-three finishes; the Gamecocks placed eighth in stroke play, then lost in the first round of match play.

“Hopefully, the SEC was a good wake-up call,” McDonald said. “I thought we would play better, and that still stings a little bit. . ... We started thinking we were really good and we got our butts kicked. It’s a humbling game at all levels, and hopefully we learned from it.”

The top five in each of six regionals advance to the NCAA Championship in Fayetteville, Arkansas, and McDonald, in his 13th season, calls his current team “right up there with some of the best teams I’ve had talent-wise.”

“Certainly, this is one of the most enjoyable groups I’ve been around,” he said. “I give Ben Dietrich a lot of credit for that. He’s my new assistant and he’s done an excellent job in some team-building exercises. Those have helped our guys buy into the process.”

If he feared a post-SEC hangover, the Gamecocks showed otherwise in U.S. Open local qualifying Thursday. The five spring starters all finished in the top 12, and Proveaux advanced to the sectionals.

“We just need to keep playing like we have most of the spring,” McDonald said. “If we do, we’ll be fine.”