COLUMBIA — With his coach watching from the edge of the green and his teammates looking on from the fairway, Missouri freshman Tyler Hillis did not need anyone to tell him about pressure.
He was standing over a putt that would send him to the team’s next tournament. In one fluid motion, he took the putter back and through the ball, sinking a 12-foot putt.
Before every tournament, the men’s golf team decides which members will play based on who has the lowest scores during qualifiers. After playing in qualifying rounds for the past week, both Hillis and senior Kyle Marcolla were tied for the last spot.
On Wednesday, coach Mark Leroux called Marcolla and Hillis up to the tee box as the rest of the team scattered to different parts of the first hole. The two were about to compete in a sudden death playoff, a rarity according to Marcolla.
“To be honest, I don’t think we have had too many in the four years I have been there,” Marcolla said. “Maybe two or three.”
As Hillis prepared to hit his drive, suddenly it became quiet on the tee box. The joking around was finished and the coach told both competitors “good luck.” After just a few practice swings, Hillis blasted a drive 265 yards down the middle of the fairway.
“I was pretty nervous. I wanted to put one in the fairway to put pressure on him (Marcolla) since I was hitting first,” Hillis said.
So the pressure was on the senior. Marcolla responded with a confident swing putting him a few yards ahead of Hillis. However, Marcolla found himself in the rough off to the right of the fairway.
As the two walked down the fairway, neither was in the mood to talk. Both stared straight ahead, preparing for their next shot.
Hillis found his ball in the middle of the fairway and was in perfect position for his approach to the green. After the drive, some of the nerves had worn off.
“I had a little more confidence,” he said. “I wanted to make sure I hit the green to leave myself a chance for birdie and no worse than par.”
Hillis struck a perfect pitching wedge that seemed to hang in the cloudless sky. The ball finally plopped down just to the left of the hole. Once again, Marcolla was forced to respond.
Facing a downhill lie in wet conditions, Marcolla ended up hitting behind his ball, leaving it just short of the green. After a well-executed chip, Marcolla found himself in perfect position to make par. He needed the freshman to make a mistake.
Hillis, however, sunk his putt and the playoff was over just as quickly as it started. From the fairway, a few teammates said “nice putt” and the silence that had enveloped the golfers, had finally faded. Everyone could breathe again.
“Usually they go more than one hole,” Leroux said. “Because there is so much pressure, usually somebody screws up rather than somebody playing great and making birdies.”
As Hillis and Marcolla headed back to the driving range, neither showed any emotion. Both were courteous about the outcome.
Once they were on the driving range, Marcolla’s sense of humor was back and he was cracking jokes.
“That’s just his personality. We all want to be traveling. He is not going to let it show that it’s hurting inside,” teammate Pete Malnati said. “He is a good sport and a lot of fun to be around no matter what.”
The playoff was still on Marcolla’s mind, however, as he began hitting balls.
“Right now I am just hitting balls to clear my head to be honest,” he said. “I am a little upset at myself. Not because of the playoff, just the way I played in the last two qualifying rounds.”
Although he was happy that he would be competing this weekend, Hillis did feel bad that someone had to lose.
“We have a pretty good relationship,” he said. “Kyle is actually one of my favorites, and I feel bad for him not getting to go. I hate it.”
This season, Hillis has been a part of the Tigers’ first two tournaments. Putting has been his strong point thus far, but he is still looking to improve. He finished in a tie for 71st in the first tournament and 68th in the second. This weekend, Hillis and the Tigers will compete in the Windon Memorial Classic in Glencoe, Ill.