Missouri begins spring play this week.
Feb. 12, 2013
Men's Golf Preview
By Ryan Madden
"Golf teaches you that you have to be able to stand alone and be judged on your own merit. In golf, your successes, like your failures, are transparent. That's true in life, too." - Missouri Men's Head Golf Coach Mark Leroux.
On the Eastern outskirts of Columbia, Mo., the sun is just beginning to set. It's 6 p.m. and although it is impossibly cold, there is optimism in the chilly twilight air. Fifth year senior Jace Long checks the weather on his phone - it reads 2 degrees. As the frozen grass crunches under their collective step, the 19th-ranked Mizzou Men's Golf team walks off the frigid yet charming grounds at Old Hawthorne - the home course of this year's Tiger golf team.
Despite the extreme temperatures, Old Hawthorne is a course that is easy on the eyes. "Golf allows you to play in some pretty incredible settings," said Head Coach Mark Leroux. "It's one of my favorite things about the game."
Leroux, a native of New York, simply put, loves the game of golf. "I'm addicted to it," he says. A former lacrosse player, Leroux found his passion for the game while attending graduate school at Cal State Fullerton in Southern California.
"I realized somewhere along the way that I wanted to be both an educator and a coach. Sport is in many ways, an amazing thing. It has done tremendous things for society. Golf, the gentleman's game, can be very alluring and fits in perfectly with my teaching and coaching philosophies."
This year's golf team is one of the best in school history. Not since the early 1980's have the Tigers been poised for such success. Currently ranked 19th in the country (out of more than 300 Division 1 golf programs), expectations are high for this year's team. Leading the Tigers is one of the country's best collegiate golfers, fifth year senior and Dixon, Mo., native, Jace Long.
"Jace Long is our superstar," says Leroux. "He's a fifth year senior, and a local guy. He had pedigree to start with, but he works incredibly hard, and that's what gives him his edge."
As one of the best players in the country, Long, a business major, is currently on the Ben Hogan watch list (an award given to the best player in college golf). After a scintillating fall that saw him win the first three tournaments he played in (shooting under par in every round), he also won the initial two stages of Qualifying School for the PGA tour. "No one in the country had the kind of Fall that Jace had," says Leroux.
His autumn successes, although prolific, did not surprise those close to the program. Long, one of the top recruits in the country coming out of high school (where he was a two-time state champion), has had success every year since he walked on campus. His Fall campaign was only an extension of his stellar sophomore and junior seasons which saw him rack up fifteen top ten finishes, including six tournament victories, as well as qualifying for the NCAA's (where as a sophomore he shot a final round 62, breaking a school record for low score in a post-season play). Long was also a member of the 2011 USA team at the World University Games in China, where he finished 15th.
Talking about his love for the game and the University he plays for, Long says, "Mizzou is the best there is! I grew up in a family of Mizzou fans. My two older siblings attended the University and I was brought into the Tiger family at a very early age. Without the University, I would not have been able to grow into the person I am today. Mizzou has shaped my character both on and off the golf course and that's something I can take with me forever."
For Long, the transition from being a highly regarded youth talent to one the country's finest players has been a result both of hard work as well as making a few calculated adjustments to his game. "From your average Sunday golfer to your tour professional, the best way to take strokes off your score is to improve your short game," says coach Leroux. "That's the area he has made the most strides in. He's now at the point where he almost never misses a short put. He has improved his driving accuracy tremendously as well."
With Long, his passion for the game is apparent. "Golf is something that will always be with you. I will be able to play all of my life and it's something that I've really fallen in love with. I enjoy competing and when it comes to improving your skills, there are no ceilings in golf. You will never be perfect and I cherish practicing and being able to get better."
The perfect complement to Long's reserved, leadership by example style, is the Tigers number two player, the vocal and talented Spaniard, Emilio Cuartero. Cuartero grew up in Cataluña, an autonomous community in the Northeast of Spain known for both its beauty and affinity for sport. His hometown, Lleida, is also home to world famous soccer player Carlos Puyol (the captain of F.C. Barcelona) and a club for whom Cuartero's passions run deep.
Emilio, who majors in agriculture at Mizzou, was the number one ranked amateur golfer in Spain before joining the Tigers. He enjoyed a tremendous level of success his freshman season, playing in 9 of 13 events. He followed it up as a sophomore by starting all 12 events, placing in the top 15 on six occasions. Cuartero, who many describe as a "natural talent," recorded a season low score of 66 last year at the C&F Invitational, a tournament he would eventually finish fourth in. Cuartero says of his European upbringing and the transition to the college game here in America, "In Spain, we learn the same things, but in a different way. I grew up playing a low ball and lots of running shots around the green. Here, it is different, but I'm still learning all the time."
Joining aces Long and Cuartero this season are Ryan Zeck and Jacob Fair. Both of whom will have to contribute mightily if the Tigers are to make waves on the national scene.
Zech, a 6-foot-3 sophomore, from Kearney, Mo., played in nine events last season. He enjoyed his first career victory in the Columbia Orthopedic Group Mizzou Intercollegiate where he shot 67-70-71. The 2011 Kansas City Metro Player of the Year, Zech, who chose Mizzou over Iowa, Georgia Tech and SMU amongst others, is planning on majoring in education. Big things are expected of this Missouri native.
Fair, a highly touted 5-foot-8 freshman from Monett, Mo., is also expected to contribute early and often.
"Zech and Fair are two guys who have the traditional characteristics of leadership," Leroux said. "You can tell they want it. They are extremely talented, and I'm really looking forward to watching them grow as golfers and as people."
Another player to watch for this year is Brad Moody. Moody, a 5-foot-7 senior from Helias High School in Jefferson City, has been featured sporadically over the past three years for the Tigers. He will hope to get his chance to impress this spring.
One of the key challenges for this year's team will be maintaining a sense of togetherness. Developing that unified spirit is high on Coach Leroux's priority list.
"Bringing everyone together is a big part of my job," Leroux said. "We're always working on combining team values in to, what is for most, an individual sport," he says. "It's difficult to get 10, 11, 12 guys together, on one mission. It's hard to keep your arms around all of them, especially when only five play. But this is a great group, and these guys understand that this whole thing is about hard work, and investing themselves in the program.
Only adding to the program's adulation is the recent news that a very generous donation to the Athletic Department (By Don and Audrey Walsworth of Marceline, Mo.) has been earmarked for a new team clubhouse at Old Hawthorne. This funding will also allow for new golf offices, team locker rooms, indoor-hitting bays and modern swing instruction technology.
Says Coach Leroux of the recent financial support:
"It's going to allow us to make huge strides, especially in player development. We're upgrading our facilities and our technology. It should also help on the recruiting trail. When you have great facilities and the equipment available for kids to really improve their games, it makes things a little easier. This school is going to be an extremely attractive place for the next generation of golf recruits."
Currently a top-20 team with another good recruiting class on the way, the future is indeed very bright for Tigers. However, so too is the present, and this year's crop of Tiger golfers have the talent to compete with the best programs in the country.
With an abundance of leadership, great talent and sound coaching, this could be a special year for Tiger golf.
The Tigers continue spring play on Feb. 12, at the Farms Collegiate in Rancho Santa Fe, California.
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