Missouri men’s golf team carries momentum into NCAA final

05/22/2014 5:57 PM

06/03/2014 10:17 AM

Missouri men’s golf coach Mark Leroux channeled his inner Norm Stewart when asked about the upcoming NCAA Division I championship, which begins Friday at Prairie Dunes Country Club in Hutchinson, Kan.

“We actually talked about maybe staying in Missouri and then driving back each day, but it was a little too far,” Leroux said Monday during a news conference.

Stewart famously refused to stay in Kansas during men’s basketball trips, refusing to spend money in the Tigers archrivals’ state when he could avoid it.

Jokes aside, Missouri rides a crest of momentum into the national championship

The Tigers, who reached the NCAA final for the first time since 2005, finished third last weekend during regional play as tourney host during a 54-hole qualifier at The Club at Old Hawthorne.

Missouri drew the No. 27 seed among 30 teams, but that doesn’t bother coach Mark Leroux, whose squad was seeded eighth for its regional before playing its way into the championship field.

“We’ve already had some of that discussion and it was, ‘Hey, you really have nothing to lose. You’re the 27th seed going in,’” Leroux said.

The Tigers had been selected for regional play three of the last four seasons, but snapped an eight-year championship final drought behind individual champion Emilio Cuartero and runner-up Hunter Kraus.

“It shouldn’t be unexpected to make it (to the NCAA final),” Leroux said. “If you’re a golfer and you’re in mid-Missouri, we play year-round. The golf courses are open year-round. Some winters are better than others, but we can still get it done.”

Leroux said recent facilities upgrades also helped Missouri become more competitive.

“With the addition of the Walsworth Family Golf Center, it’s kind of put us over the top,” Leroux said. “It’s made the difference, so that I think we can stay competitive year in and year out.”

Cuartero, a senior from Lleida, Spain, was selected Thursday to the All-Central Region team. He won the individual regional title with a 7-under 65 on Saturday, tying his career-low round.

Now, Cuartero enters his final college tournament with six straight rounds under par.

Fellow senior Hunter Kraus, who led the regional after two rounds and finished in a three-way tie for second overall, also carries momentum into the NCAA final.

While the Tigers face a stacked field, Leroux believes his squad has a chance to crack the top eight and qualify for the match-play team championship.

“The field at the SEC was stronger statistically than the regional field,” Leroux said. “This regional field was pretty big, was pretty strong. I think at the finals, it’s going to be just like the last three tournaments that we’ve played.”

As long as Missouri focuses on playing its game rather than who it is playing, the team should be fine.

“You’re playing the golf course and you’re hitting the golf ball,” Leroux said. “The ball’s pretty stupid. It doesn’t know who else is over there or what shirts they’re wearing.”

If anything, the Tigers need to avoid feeling satisfied.

“The biggest thing is not to get complacent,” Kraus said. “A big goal of ours was to make it to nationals, so we need to make sure we are like, ‘Oh, well, we’ve achieved that now.’”

Leroux hopes Missouri’s performance in 2014 marks a turning point for the program.

“It has been a battle, but I think that we’re winning the battle now,” Leroux said. “There’s a lot of support from alums. The fan base here, the Columbia golf community, I think are all behind us, and that can only help us going forward.”

To reach Tod Palmer, call 816-234-4389 or send email to tpalmer@kcstar.com. Follow him at twitter.com/todpalmer.

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