April 18, 2013
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- After having one of its most successful regular seasons in recent history, the South Carolina men's golf team will begin postseason play this weekend at the SEC Championship in St. Simons Island, Ga.
The 54-hole event will be held Friday through Sunday at the par-70, 7,055-yard Seaside Course at Sea Island Golf Club. The Gamecocks had six top-five finishes on the season, including the program's first tournament win since 2009, two individual champions and a dual match victory over eighth-ranked Georgia Tech to close out the year.
One of the keys to Carolina's success has been its quality depth. The Gamecocks have had eight golfers play in at least two team events this season, and those eight have combined for 22 top-20 finishes.
"It's been a really good year. What I'm excited about is the number of players that we've played," South Carolina head coach Bill McDonald said. "This is probably the most depth we've ever had, and I think it's shown through our results. Right now I'm just pleased and am excited about getting into the postseason."
After finishing fifth in a loaded field at the Augusta State Invitational to close out the regular-season schedule, McDonald is sticking with the same lineup for this weekend. On paper the lineup will be one of the youngest at the SEC Championship, with freshmen Matt NeSmith and Will Starke, sophomores Caleb Sturgeon and Sean Kelly and senior Dykes Harbin slated to tee it up at Sea Island. However, a closer look at what they have done this season makes it look like they are a veteran lineup as they have combined for 18 top-20 finishes, including two individual wins and 13 top-10 showings.
Harbin leads the team and ranks 22nd in the SEC with a stroke average of 72.96. He has recorded five top-20 finishes, including a win at the AutoTrader.com Collegiate Classic. Sturgeon ranks third on the team with a stroke average of 73.85 and has five top-20 finishes, including a victory at the Wendy's Kiawah Classic. NeSmith closed out the regular season on a roll, producing four straight top-10 finishes and winning SEC Freshman of the Week three times. In all he has seven top-20 finishes and is second on the team with a scoring average of 73.04. Kelly, who has a stroke average of 75.50, is making his fourth appearance for the Gamecocks this season. Starke is also in his fourth lineup for Carolina after posting an average of 74.33 in his three previous events. He helped lead the Gamecocks to a win at the Wendy's Kiawah Classic with a second-place finish.
"I think we are trending in the right direction," McDonald said. "The last couple of weeks I've felt like these guys have been moving in the direction of doing something special. I know they are excited to get down there and play in the best conference championship in the country."
The Gamecocks are still searching for their first SEC title as they are set to make their 22nd appearance. Carolina has come extremely close to winning it all, posting runner-up finishes in both 1998 and 2008 and a third-place showing in 1999. Eric Ecker is the only Gamecock to claim medalist honors as he shot rounds of 70-66=136 to win the rain-shortened event in 1998 in Athens, Ga. George Bryan IV tied for medalist honors in 2010 before falling to Georgia's Russell Henley in a playoff. Bryan IV (2008) and Kyle Thompson (1999) have also finish tied for second.
South Carolina posted a 54-hole total of 871 (+31) to finish in 10th place at the 2012 SEC Championship at Sea Island Golf Club. Wesley Bryan tied for 13th to lead the way, shooting rounds of 67-73-72=212 (+2). Sturgeon just missed a top-20 finish as he tied for 27th with rounds of 74-68-74=216 (+6). Will Murphy (218) tied for 37th, and Dean Hester (226) and Harbin (229) finished 52nd and 53rd, respectively.
The Gamecocks face its toughest test of the season this weekend. Of the 14 teams in the conference, 13 are ranked in the Golfstat Top 50, including 12 ranked 36th or higher. Second-ranked Alabama will defend its SEC title against the No. 30 Gamecocks and No. 9 Florida, No. 13 Georgia, No. 14 Arkansas, No. 15 LSU, No. 19 Auburn, No. 21 Texas A&M, No. 23 Tennessee, No. 25 Mississippi State, No. 31 Missouri, No. 36 Vanderbilt, No. 50 Kentucky and Mississippi.
Georgia leads the way with 28 SEC titles, followed by Florida (15), LSU (15), Auburn (3), Mississippi State (2), Tennessee (3), Alabama (3), Arkansas (1), Kentucky (1) and Ole Miss (1).
South Carolina will tee off in the first round on Friday at 9:10 a.m. and will be paired with Missouri and Vanderbilt. Live scoring will be available all three days through Golfstat.
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