When springtime rolls around, there’s a different feeling on the golf course, Georgia coach Chris Haack said.
His athletes seem a little more interested than usual in the sport, and he’s always happy to see them prove they have what it takes in the weeks leading up to the Southeastern Conference championship.
“We try making them feel like there’s a lot of heat on them,” Haack said. “That’s the best way to do it, to make it competitive, to make them compete for something every day. They’ve been trying to beat each other’s brains out the last couple weeks, and that’s a good way to prepare for this.”
The Bulldogs head into the SEC championship, which runs Friday through Sunday at Sea Island, as one of five top-25 teams — including No. 2 Alabama, No. 8 Florida, No. 19 Arkansas and No. 22 Auburn — and with all 14 conference teams ranked in the top 50.
The tournament has frequently been an opportunity for the Bulldogs to romp. Since 1982, the team has won 10 SEC titles, more than any other team in the conference in that period. Yet it hasn’t always been a great indication of the success the Bulldogs have deeper in the postseason.
Georgia won national titles in 1999 and 2005 after missing out on the SEC crown. Even in the Bulldogs’ recent NCAA runner-up finishes in 2011 and 2007, they failed to win the SEC.
That won’t stop the team from treating this year’s conference tournament as the most important event of the season.
“This is definitely the biggest thing for us all year other than the national championships,” Georgia junior Keith Mitchell said. “The SEC is probably the strongest golf conference in the nation. A win there would really give us momentum going into the postseason, because if we can beat that caliber or teams, we can contend for a title.”
The Bulldogs opened their fall season with a second-place finish at the Carpet Capital College Classic in Rocky Face and won the Brickyard Collegiate Championship in Macon a month later in October, and they are coming off a third-place finish at the Insperity Augusta State Invitational earlier this month. Much of the time in between the fall successes and this month’s showing in Augusta have been up and down, but sophomore Nicholas Reach said he believes the team is carrying some newfound momentum into this weekend.
“When you’re playing well, you’re playing well. When you’re playing poorly, you’re playing poorly,” Reach said. “We’ve been working on a couple things, especially course management stuff, and I think it’s starting to come together a little bit more than what it was at the beginning of the spring, so we’ve been seeing continuous improvement to where we are now.”
The Bulldogs’ roster has one senior, T.J. Mitchell, and has had success all the way down the lineup to some of its youngest members. Freshman Lee McCoy has been a regular score contributor, sophomore Sam Straka won the Brickyard and there have been several runner-up finishes.
“With having such a young team and not losing anybody, everybody’s been in this situation before except Lee McCoy, but he’s stepped up to the plate every time we’ve needed him to,” Mitchell said. “It’s all about being comfortable under pressure, and now that we’ve all been in this situation, we know we can perform even better now.
“We may not look that experienced on paper, but we are on the course.”