COLUMBIA — The five golfers who will represent Missouri at the Southeastern Conference Championship come from Scotland, Spain, Memphis, Kansas City and Columbia. They represent all grades and have varying experience levels in conference championships.
It's been an erratic bunch, winning three tournaments but also finishing in the bottom half of three others.
In order to keep that season going, they'll need to play well at this weekend's tournament, held at the Sea Island Golf Club at St. Simons Island, Ga., from Friday to Sunday.
Missouri enters the tournament ranked 54th in the country but just 11th in the 14-team SEC, which may be the real proving ground for the Tigers.
“I think in the general public’s mind, the most important thing is how you fare in the SEC,” coach Mark Leroux said. “In golf, this is our one opportunity to do it.
“There may be tournaments through the year where we see three or four teams from the conference, but this is the one time that we all line up against each other and you see who’s who.”
This will be the first SEC Championship for Euan Walker, a freshman from Troon, Scotland, who has had to adjust to his first full year playing in the U.S.
“The courses are a little different here,” Walker said when comparing American courses to those in his native Scotland. “I grew up playing links courses where you have to hit the ball along the ground most of the time. You can’t really play any low shots out here. If you do, it’s probably going to be a bad shot.”
Walker’s transition has been largely successful: He has three finishes in the top-15 this season, and his stroke average of 72.5 is second best on the team.
Along with Walker, sophomore Wilson Sundvold will also be making his SEC Championship debut Thursday. The Columbia native returned in the fall after redshirting last season.
“I think the main thing for me was just to get my feet back under me and get my confidence back,” Sundvold said. “We need five good players, and (this season), I felt like it was my turn to step up and help these guys out.”
For the time being, Missouri's No. 54 ranking puts them in a position to qualify for NCAA Regionals, according to Leroux.
Eighty-one teams qualify for regionals. Twenty-seven teams will qualify automatically as conference tournament champions, which leaves 54 at-large bids.
Leroux says right now the magic number is near No. 69: Any team ranked lower than that would miss out on an at-large bid to regionals.
That number could fluctuate depending on how other teams do in their conference tournaments. Although Missouri is on the good side of Leroux’s magic number, their own performance and the performance of other teams this weekend could cause major changes to the rankings entering the postseason.
The Tigers entered last season’s SEC Championship with a No. 32 ranking and the country’s 36th ranked golfer, Jace Long. The team finished the tournament in a tie with Vanderbilt for seventh and qualified for regionals.
Hunter Kraus, Ryan Zech and Emilio Cuartero also competed at last year’s event and will compete again this year. Kraus, a senior, and Zech, a junior, were Missouri’s top golfers at the SEC Championship last year with 15th- and 23rd-place finishes, respectively.
The key to Missouri’s success likely rests with its No. 1 golfer, Emilio Cuartero. The senior, who shares captain duties with Kraus, competed in all nine of Missouri’s events this season and recorded the highest team finish in seven of them. He has recorded four top-10 finishes this season and won the Columbia Regional Preview, held at The Club at Old Hawthorne in September.
“My goal is to take the team to the national championship,” Cuartero said. “I would love to leave that experience with the team. We’ve been close a couple times.”
Cuartero, who hails from Lleida, Spain, played in the Big 12 conference tournament twice before Missouri made the switch to the SEC. Last year, Cuartero finished 31st after shooting an 8-over 78 in the third round.
A month after the SEC tournament, Missouri traveled to Ohio for the NCAA Regional tournament in Columbus. Cuartero shot 4-over par and finished tied for ninth place out of 75 golfers. Missouri finished seventh, missing out on a trip to the national championship by seven strokes.
Cuartero said Missouri needs to focus on the basics this weekend.
“We have played good rounds this year," Cuartero said. "In order to keep up the good rounds, we need to focus on the process. If you think about winning, winning, winning, then you panic. Just focus on the process, what we learned, what we practice every day. If we do that, we’ll be successful.”