What: NCAA Eugene Regional
Where: Eugene Country Club, Eugene, Ore. (par-70, 6,990 yards)
When: May 15-17
Coming off one of the most successful regular seasons in program history, the No. 22 South Carolina men's golf team begins play in the two-tier NCAA Tournament on Thursday at 11 a.m. ET.
But they traveled almost 3,000 miles to Oregon to do it.
Awarded the No. 4 seed in the Eugene Regional, USC will compete against 12 teams at the par-70, 6,990-yard Eugene Country Club in the three-day, 54-hole event, with the top five schools and lowest individual not on those teams advancing to the NCAA Championship on May 23-28 at Prairie Dunes Country Club in Hutchinson, Kan.
The Gamecocks arrived in the Evergreen State on Monday and played a practice round at a Portland, Ore., area golf course on Tuesday. Today, they have a practice round scheduled on the NCAA Regional course before competitive play begins Thursday morning.
"I've been to Oregon a few times, so I have an idea of what we're going to see," USC coach Bill McDonald told Gamecock Central recently. "I've done as much research as I can online and talked to some people that have played it. It's very much an old school type course. It's tree-lined and not extremely long. It probably has some rough. It remains to be determined as to whether it's one of those courses that plays longer than the yardage."
USC is among 12 SEC teams receiving bids to one of six regionals throughout the country. Tennessee joins the Gamecocks in Eugene. Pac-12 champion Stanford is the top seed for the regional, followed by Houston, Oklahoma, USC and Baylor.
"I wasn't surprised we were moved out of the Southeast because there are so many SEC teams," McDonald said. "They have to figure out where to put us. I'm sure it's quite a burden on the committee to figure out where to send 12 SEC teams."
Three schools from the state of Tennessee will participate in the Eugene Regional: Tennessee, East Tennessee State and Chattanooga, giving the regional a distinct Southeastern and Southwestern flavor even though the tournament unfolds in the Pacific Northwest.
"A lot of people say we got a bad break by being shipped out west, but I don't really see it that way," McDonald said. "It's a great opportunity for the kids to see a different style of course. Last year, we saw something totally different up at Ohio State and we handled that fine. I'm looking forward to another solid tournament and playing well again. We've played a variety of golf courses this year."
Leading up to the NCAA regional, the Gamecocks won three tournaments (Badger Invitational, Wendy's Kiawah Classic and Seahawk Intercollegiate) and finished among the top three spots in a school-record seven straight events.
Two weeks ago, USC finished fifth at the SEC Championship at Sea Island Golf Club's Seaside Course, carding a two-under par total of 838, the lowest 54-hole score for the annual tournament in school history.
"I was pleased with how we hung in there," McDonald said. "The first day, we got the tail end of the tee times and the moist wind. I thought the guys fought hard in the toughest conditions anybody faced that day and kept us in the tournament. We were right there after the first round. The second day we played really well. Overall, it was a good week for us."
USC's five-man team includes junior Will Murphy, sophomore Matt NeSmith, sophomore Will Starke, freshman Ben Dietrich and junior Caleb Sturgeon.
"This lineup has won three times this year," McDonald said. "We've mixed the lineup up a little bit throughout the year, but these guys have proven week in and week out that they are the best five we have. There won't be any changes."
Because the Gamecocks have no seniors, all five players are expected to return in 2014-15.
"We're in good shape with everybody returning that is starting," McDonald said. "And we have some good recruits coming in. This is a great group and they've worked really hard. Hopefully, we can get on a good run here and have a great postseason and let that carry us into another good year next year."
Murphy was USC's top finisher at the SEC championship as he tied for fifth with a five-under par score of 205, matching the second lowest total ever for a Gamecock golfer at the SEC championship.
NeSmith, an Augusta, Ga., native, was named Second Team All-SEC as selected by the league's 14 head coaches one year after being honored as Co-SEC Freshman of the Year and being selected to the All-Freshman Team.
NeSmith leads USC with a stroke average of 71.66, currently the second lowest single-season average in program history. He has produced a team-high seven top-20 finishes, and his four top-five showings are tied for fifth most in a single season at USC.
Less than a stroke behind NeSmith's team-leading average is Starke (72.28) and Murphy (72.55).
"Will Murphy started coming on and playing real well," McDonald said. "Those three guys are real close right now. Caleb had a real good fall and then he struggled a little bit in the spring, but he's certainly capable. Ben Dietrich was very close to making the All-SEC Freshman team. We got help from all five guys, which has been a good thing."
USC is making its 17th appearance in a regional in the last 18 year, and is eyeing a second consecutive appearance in the NCAA championship. Last year, the Gamecocks tied for second at the Columbus Regional.
Even though the top five teams from the Eugene Regional advance to the NCAA Championship, McDonald insists the Gamecocks' main goal is to win the Regional and head to Kansas for the NCAA Championship with a lot of momentum on their side.
"You're trying to win a golf tournament," McDonald said. "If you try to make a B in a class, you'll usually make a C. We want to prepare to win. You certainly take care of business if you win the golf tournament. That's the approach we have to take."
NCAA EUGENE REGIONAL SEEDING:
1. Stanford (Pac-12 Champion)
4. South Carolina
6. Liberty (Big South Champion)
7. Oregon (host school)
9. North Florida
10. East Tennessee State
12. Wichita State (Missouri Valley Champion)
13. Northern Colorado (Big Sky Champion)
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