Their dramatic finish — maybe “miracle” is a better word — propelled South Carolina’s Gamecocks into a playoff for a berth in the NCAA Men’s Golf Championships, and coach Bill McDonald’s team responded like, say, Brooks Koepka in a major.
The coach loved his team’s resolve, and the collective answer to the final-round challenge in last week’s regional in Pullman, Wash. Yet, he came away with a pragmatic view, too.
“I’m excited for the guys and proud to advance,” he said in reflecting on the Gamecocks’ overcoming a six-stroke deficit with four holes remaining, then winning the sudden-death playoff over Colorado State. But he rejected an all’s-well-that-ends-well philosophy.
“On the other hand, I’m disappointed we got ourselves in that situation,” said McDonald, completing his 13th season at Carolina. “We’re too good a team, too talented, to be in that position.”
The Gamecocks’ mission: refocus and play in the NCAA Championships in Fayetteville, Arkansas, like the team that climbed from obscurity to No. 15 nationally with an outstanding spring season. After 54 holes of stroke play Friday-Sunday, the low 15 squads play another round Monday, and the low eight advance into match play on Tuesday.
“We can’t go out there with a we’re-happy-to-be-here attitude,” McDonald said. “We have to go to Arkansas with the resolve to win the golf tournament.”
Focus will not be a problem, the team’s three seniors — Scott Stevens, Ryan Stachler and Will Miles — agreed in previewing USC’s first trip to the nationals in three years.
“We got a huge confidence boost in the regional, but we’ve got to be really focused in the NCAAs, or it won’t happen,” Miles said. “We have to channel our energy in the right way.”
In that regard, McDonald said Thursday’s practice round will be crucial. The Blessings Golf Course will play at more than 7,500 yards, and some of the tee shots are deceiving. McDonald saw the layout on a recruiting trip several years ago and remembers its challenges.
“We’ve got to get familiar with the wind directions, what clubs to hit off which tees and identify times to be aggressive,” he said. “In that regard, playing very challenging courses like Olympia Fields in the fall should be beneficial this week.”
The Gamecocks’ lineup will include the three seniors plus junior Caleb Proveaux and freshman Ryan Hall. The combination provided the perfect example of team golf in the regional’s final round.
Miles, who had not played well the first two days, fired a 4-under-par 66. Hall matched that number, and Stevens, who ignited the late-round charge with birdies at Nos. 16 and 17, posted a 65. Proveaux contributed his usual steady performance, and Stachler, who had struggled, made the decisive birdie in the playoff.
“We know we can count on each other,” Miles said, pointing out the frantic finish included Stevens’ birdies and final-hole birdies from the other four players. “Coach tells us to have fun and stay positive, and that’s what we did.”
That the Gamecocks find themselves one of the 30 teams in the NCAA Championships did not seem likely after the fall season or even the first tournament of the spring. Suddenly, though, Carolina began to sizzle, and one poll using only spring events put the team in its top five.
“Moving up 20 spots (from the mid-30s to the top 15) is hard to do in our sport,” McDonald said. “The fact that we did is a credit to these guys who continued to work hard and finally achieved positive results.
“This team deserves to be in the NCAAs. What happened last week should help us. We have an incredible opportunity, and our mindset is to win the tournament.”