COLUMBIA — When sophomore Jace Long tees off at the NCAA Championship on Tuesday, he will be the first Missouri men's golfer to do so as an individual in more than 20 years.
“That’s why I wanted to come here — to elevate the golf program and get them on the map,” Long said. “For me, it’s something special.”
It is also special for his coach, Mark Leroux, who recruited Long to play golf at Missouri. Leroux said he knew at the time that Long would be an important part of the future of the Tigers' golf program.
“I can’t tell you the number of states or tournaments I went to watch him play, but it was a lot throughout that summer,” Leroux said. “That was an emotional time and a really big sign for the University of Missouri because of the caliber of player that he was. To have somebody like that commit to your program, and stay in state, I think is something we needed to have happen.”
Long’s impact on the program came to fruition on May 21 when he shot a 10-under-par 62 at the NCAA Southeast Regional in Ocala, Fla. His score tied a school record, set a new course record, tied for medalist honors and qualified him for the NCAA Championship.
Tigers volunteer assistant coach John Utley was the last Missouri golfer to qualify as an individual for the NCAA Championships. He tied for 23rd at the 1990 event at Innisbrook Golf Course in Palm Harbor, Fla., to earn All-American honors. Shawn Jasper finished 16th at the championships when the Tigers qualified as a team in 2005.
Now Long, from Dixon, has the opportunity to compete against the nation’s best in Stillwater, Okla. Leroux said Long’s self-confidence and shot making ability will allow him to compete on the big stage.
“Certainly one of Jace’s strengths is his ability to believe in himself,” Leroux said. “There are a lot of shots that the average player probably doesn’t have that Jace believes he can hit and pulls it off.”
Still, Leroux knows that with Long’s self-belief comes a tendency to attempt more difficult shots and take risks on the golf course. The team has a system of shot classification, deeming them, depending on difficulty, as green light, yellow light or red light. Leroux said sometimes Long sees the colors differently than the rest of the team.
“In the last tournament, he’s right on the cart path, in the woods, between two trees, looking at the green on a par 5,” Leroux said. “It was clearly a yellow light or red light situation where you pitch it back out on the fairway. For him it was, ‘I can hit it right between these trees and knock it on the green.’”
Long doesn’t expect his self-confidence to wane, even in the face of the toughest competition he has faced in his collegiate career.
“It’s not something I’m unfamiliar with,” Long said. “I play a lot of summer golf with these same guys, so it’s not something out of my element or something I’m not used to.”
Long is also familiar with Karsten Creek, the course that he will take on during the championship. Long said he played the course at least a dozen times as a junior golfer and that it works to his strengths.
“It sets up well for me,” Long said. “It’s similar to Old Hawthorne, where we practice most of the time. It’s just a matter of hitting straight and putting well.”
No matter how Long finishes at this year’s NCAA Championships, Leroux said that Long’s success this season as a sophomore bodes well for the future of the program.
“I think he’s done fantastic,” Leroux said. “When you see a Missouri boy from Dixon, who is a sophomore coming in and playing like he has, maybe the message is the future is bright for Mizzou golf.”