Cullowhee, N.C. – Western Carolina opens its quest for a first Southern Conference Men’s Golf team championship on Sunday morning as play commences at the par-72, 7,118-yard Jack Nicklaus Signature course, Pinehurst No. 9 in Pinehurst, N.C. The event practice round is scheduled for Saturday, April 20 with WCU hitting the course at 2 pm with the three-round, 54-hole tournament to include 18 holes each day April 21-23.
The league’s eight teams – ETSU, Furman, Mercer, UNCG, Samford, Chattanooga, Western Carolina, and Wofford – compete for the SoCon tournament title and the automatic bid to the NCAA regional field. The individual medalist will also earn an automatic regional qualification if he is not on the winning team.
“We’re just trying to continue to get better – the same mantra we’ve had this year as a team,” said WCU head coach Tim Eckberg on his squad entering the championship event this weekend. “I’ve been waiting for our guys as a team to have confidence and play the way I know they can, and to play the way that they each have as individuals at certain times this season. We want to put together our best event of the year, all together at the same time here in Pinehurst.”
He added, “There aren’t overly high expectations on our team this weekend which means no one is looking over their shoulder for us so we can play free. We’re just looking to go out and play our best, try and keep all five golfers in the round if we can and put together five solid scores. It’s a great learning experience for so many of our underclassmen to get on that course in the conference championship environment.”
Sunday’s pairings are determined by last year’s championship finish which puts WCU together with golfers from Wofford. The Catamount scoring five includes freshmen Tumi Kúld and Louis Theys, senior George Whitbread, and sophomores Michael Coe and Zach Caudill.
WCU freshmen Kúld and Theys combined to lead the Catamounts in seven of the team’s 10 regular season tournaments with Whitbread pacing the squad three times and Coe tying Kúld for the top finish once. Kúld opened the year with a top 10 individual finish in his collegiate debut, tying for 10th at The Invitational at The Ocean Course in Kiawah Island, S.C. Theys, who boasted the squad’s top stroke average through the year, turned-in the team’s best individual finish with a career-best fourth-place showing at the Grand Canyon Invitational in the spring semester.
“Louis and Tumi both have shown the ability to perform at big events at different times, while both George and Michael gained invaluable experience at this event a season ago. I know what we’re capable of even if they haven’t shown this year, it’s just a matter of us finding that this weekend,” said Eckberg.
This year’s event is the 12th SoCon Championship to be held in Pinehurst all-time and the sixth-straight season that the conference champion crowning event is to be held at Pinehurst No. 9, formerly known as the National Golf Club. The event was also held in the North Carolina Sandhills in 1937, 1939, 1948, 1969, and 1979-80, all on the famed Pinehurst No. 2.
Pinehurst No. 9 course features wide fairways, lush course conditions and undulating putting surfaces that test the minds and abilities of golfers. Per Golf Digest, the course "has come to enhance even the lofty Sandhills image for world-class golf amenities." The course was originally designed in 1988 by Jack Nicklaus before it was redesigned and restored in 2012, again by Nicklaus. Slopes, sand bunkers and a modest amount of water hazards protect the course that is shaded by the Carolina pines of eastern North Carolina.
“It’s a difficult golf course. It’s demanding – a Nicklaus design that is a second-shot course. It’s an intelligent course that will test you. Each year, the team scores seem higher than they should be and the individual medalist isn’t very far under par – but the course plays pretty consistent year-in and year-out because you can’t overpower this course. You have to have smart, quality shots – one bad shot punishes you,” said Eckberg.
Last season, UNCG weathered a rainy final day to hold off hard-charging Chattanooga to claim a five-stroke championship win, its first SoCon men’s golf title after three-straight runner-up finishes to ETSU from 2015-17. Six top-10 finishers from a year return to the field this season.
All told, five SoCon golfers have won tournaments during the regular season, including Furman’s Keller Harper (River Run Collegiate, Furman Intercollegiate), UNCG’s Bryce Hendrix (Irish Creek Intercollegiate), UNCG’s Nick Lyerly (UNCG Martin Downs Collegiate), Chattanooga’s Oliver Simonsen (Memphis Intercollegiate) and Furman’s Jack Crosby (Camden Collegiate Invitational, Wofford Invitational).
In addition to the Bucs' 20 titles, current league members Furman (13) and Chattanooga (six) have SoCon championships to their credit. Furman's last was in 2010, while Chattanooga claimed consecutive titles in 2012 and 2013.
ETSU and Furman share the SoCon record with 14 individual medalists each. WCU has seen three golfers claim medalist honors a total of five times including Bruce Kullman (1991), Matt Cook (2006 and 2008), and most recently, J.T. Poston in back-to-back seasons in 2014 and 2015.
The Southern Conference Men’s Golf Championship boasts a rich history. Dating back to 1930, the tournament has produced winners such as Wake Forest’s Arnold Palmer (1948 and 1949) and Furman’s Brad Faxon (1983), both SoCon Hall-of-Famers, and current PGA TOUR pros Stephan Jaeger of Chattanooga (2012), former Catamount men’s golfer J.T. Poston (2014 and 2015) and William McGirt of Wofford (2001).
Complete recaps will be made available online at CatamountSports.com and SoConSports.com throughout the tournament.