Cullowhee, N.C. - Western Carolina men's golf heads to the 2017 Southern Conference Men's Golf Championship this weekend seeking the program's first-ever team title and the automatic bid to the NCAA Regional field that accompanies the crown. The 79th SoCon Men's Golf Championship will again be held at the par-72, 7,118-yard Jack Nicklaus Signature course, Pinehurst No. 9.
It is the 10th time the SoCon Championship will be contested in the Sandhills of North Carolina. The event was also held in Pinehurst in 1937, 1939, 1948, 1969, and 1979-80 -- all on the famed No. 2 course before the last four have been held at Pinehurst No. 9, formerly known as the National Golf Club. Admission is free.
Due to the threat of inclement weather in Pinehurst on Monday, the teams are going to attempt to play 36 holes on Sunday, starting at 8:00 am going off of holes 1 and 10 in twosomes, using carts. The second round will play foursomes for round two starting at approximately 12:10 pm off of Hole 1. Live stats can be found online at GolfStatResults.com.
ETSU emerged from a tight multiple-team race to claim its record 19th Southern Conference Men's Golf Championship -- and second in a row since its return to the league -- in 2016, edging runner-up UNCG by a stroke. The Spartans have posted consecutive runner-up finishes the past two seasons. The Bucs' Adrian Meronk shot a 3-under 69 on the final day of the tournament to claim a one-shot win in the individual race.
Behind ETSU, Furman owns 13 SoCon titles, last winning in 2010, while Chattanooga is the only other current member to have won the title as the Mocs have six to their credit, most recently winning back-to-back crowns in 2012 and 2013. UTC is the top-ranked team in the league this year.
Wofford's Andrew Novak paced the SoCon in stroke average during the regular season at 70.86, ranking just outside the top 100 individually. He claimed individual medalist honors twice during the year. Chattanooga (93) and UNCG (100) enter this year's tournament ranked in the top 100 nationally according to GolfStat. ETSU ranks just outside the top 100 at No. 110.
WCU enters this year's championship after back-to-back sixth place showings. The team's best overall finish at the conference championship was a runner-up showing back in 1986 with a pair of third place showings in 2008 and 2009.
This season, the Catamounts have posted seven, top 10 team finishes including three-straight entering the conference championship. For just the third time in program history, WCU has won two team titles in the same season, claiming both the home Hummingbird Intercollegiate at the Country Club of Sapphire Valley in the fall and the Frontier Secure Intercollegiate in Florida back in late February. WCU enters the conference tournament riding three-straight, top 10 finishes collectively.
"We had a great tune-up last week at N.C. State with a strong finish in a really good field. I feel like this team is right where we want to be heading into the SoCon Championship," said second-year head coach Tim Eckberg.
Pacing Western Carolina's scoring five is junior transfer Dylan MacQueen, who has led the Catamounts in scoring at five of the 11 seasonal events. The Woodstock, Ontario, native ranks sixth in the SoCon in seasonal scoring average at 72.23, posting three top five finishes this year including winning the Hummingbird Intercollegiate in the final event of the fall portion of the schedule.
Third on the squad in overall scoring entering the weekend, junior Jackson Bishop holds down the No. 2 spot in the WCU lineup entering the 2017 conference championship. He has led the squad at three different tournaments this year with a pair of top 10 showings including a runner-up finish at the Hummingbird. The Gainesville, Ga., native ranks 14th overall in scoring average at 73.61.
Playing perhaps the best golf of the season at the right time is sophomore Mark David Johnson, who has carded six-consecutive rounds of even-par or better to wrap-up the regular season (70.67 average). A product of St. Simons Island, Ga., Johnson has advanced to 12th in the SoCon in scoring average, just ahead of Bishop at 73.55 per round while also twice pacing the Catamount side in scoring. His two top five individual finishes include his first career medalist honors at the Frontier Secure Intercollegiate in late February. Johnson led the Catamounts at last year's SoCon tournament with a fifth-place finish as a true freshman.
"Our top three scorers have proven that they can go against anyone in the country and compete," Eckberg said. "Dylan has been a force for us all year; his game has shown that it's not only among the best in the conference, but that he is one of the best players in the nation. Jackson has continued to improve throughout the season and the spring. His consistency with the ability to also go low gives us a strong and reliable two man."
He added, "Mark David's game has exploded this spring. His win at Stetson's event was a coming out party for him, and showcased the massive amount of talent that he has. In the last two tournaments especially, though, he's shown that consistency we've been waiting on. Having him in the three spot gives us a statement player in the middle of our lineup."
Rounding out WCU's scoring five are junior Bright Julamool and sophomore Lawson King. Julamool, who paced the team at the first event of the spring, enters the tournament ranked 25th in SoCon scoring average at 74.68, while King is averaging 77.19 per round.
"Bright and Lawson are great in our four and five spots for different reasons," said Eckberg. "Bright is never out of a round. He is so good that every hole he steps onto is a birdie hole. Despite mistakes that may happen along the course during the day, he is able to bounce back. I love watching him play because he is never out of a round, and never gives up - he's probably the most capable on the team to run off six-straight birdies and take an ugly round and make it an under par round. Lawson, on the other hand, just hangs around par. He limits mistakes, makes a lot of pars, and stays in his rounds a long time. As a result, he rarely goes high and gives us a solid number to rely on in our five spot. Those two have been so good for us in giving us a good score between the two of them every round we play."
The Pinehurst No. 9 course features wide fairways, lush course conditions and undulating putting surfaces that test the minds and abilities of golfers. According to 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.
"I feel that the golf course for the SoCon sets up so well for us," Eckberg said. "It's a Nicklaus Design Course which means there are a lot of left-to-right holes and tee shots which sets up great for powerful left-handers like Dylan and Mark David. There's also a balance of holes that require precision, which suits Jackson and Lawson's game -- and power which fits Bright's game."
He added, "We have a great game plan in mind for this week, and I'm looking forward to watching the guys execute. Our conference is always strong in golf, and this year is no different. But this team developed a lot this year. We've put them through a lot of tests from very tough golf courses to extremely good competition, and they have used this to continue to get better and expand their games. We are ready for the challenge of bringing home a conference championship."
The Southern Conference Men's Golf Championship boasts a rich history. Dating back to 1933, 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 William McGirt of Wofford (2001) and WCU's J.T. Poston, a two-time winner in 2014 and 2015 -- one of just 11 multiple-time event champs.
Complete recaps will be made available online at CatamountSports.com and SoConSports.com throughout the tournament.