NeSmith, Gamecocks continue roll in Hackler Championship

Randall Hill/For The Sun News

Weeks like the one that just ended Sunday are the reason Matt NeSmith returned to South Carolina for his senior season rather than turn professional last summer.

In a span of six days, NeSmith won two individual titles to lead the Gamecocks to a pair of team titles.

After winning the Palmetto Invitational in Aiken on Tuesday, NeSmith shot his second consecutive 5-under-par 67 Sunday with a birdie on the 18th hole to share the individual title in the General Hackler Championship with Virginia junior Jimmy Stanger at 9-under 207.

The Gamecocks held a three-stroke lead entering the final round at the 7,300-yard Dunes Golf and Beach Club over Virginia, which also finished second in Aiken, and extended their lead with a 7-under 281 for a seven-stroke win at 23-under 841.

“We’re pumped. We’re really ecstatic. Everyone’s excited. We’re going to take a nice couple days off,” NeSmith said. “… The last two tournaments we’ve really showed a lot, a lot of what this team can do and what the freshmen, who don’t really play quite like freshmen, are capable of.”

NeSmith began the final round four strokes behind Stanger, who shot a 71 Sunday to claim his first college win.

“That was a great round by Matt NeSmith today. It was windy out there,” Stanger said. “I thought the course played much tougher today than it did the first two rounds. I didn’t hit the ball as well, but at the same time with all the wind, a lot of holes played into the wind, the greens were firmer and got dried out.

“I’m proud in this moment to be able to hang around on a day like today where the course played tough and I didn’t have my ‘A’ Game.”

NeSmith, of North Augusta, now has four college wins, though this is the first he has had to share with another player. “I’m happy to get it either way,” he said. “I played really, really good the last two rounds.”

Playing in the threesome in front of Stanger’s, NeSmith was a stroke down through 17 holes and hit his drive on the 430-yard par-4 18th hole on hardpan to the left of the fairway, and hit a low approach to 12 feet and rolled in the downhill putt to tie for the lead.

A South Carolina assistant coach had seen other players attempt similar putts Sunday and gave NeSmith some advice on the line. “I had a good read on it,” NeSmith said.

Stanger’s tee shot on 18 was a few yards into the left tree line. He said he asked Virginia coach Bowen Sargent which line he should take to punch out short of the water that fronts the green, and Sargent urged him to go for the green knowing he needed a par to share the individual title.

Stanger’s low slight hook with a 5-iron hit the right side of the green and curled about 15 feet behind the cup.

“I was like, ‘Shoot, I’ve got to go at the green now,’ ” Stanger said. “I took a 5-iron out and was very blessed to get that shot on the green. That’s a one in 20 golf shot. It was not a smart golf shot but it worked out very well.

“It was a heck of a finish there to hit the shot under the trees. I felt a little like Phil Mickelson. I couldn’t see the flag because I had a tree in the way, and on my finish there was a tree right there. It was a fun, memorable experience I’ll remember for awhile.”

Stanger’s putt was nearly the same putt NeSmith had rolled in minutes earlier and would have given him the win outright, but it slid to the right of the cup.

“I thought I hit a good putt and really thought I read it right but the grain took it a bit,” Stanger said. “It happens. I’ll make those in the future.”

Stanger’s family drove from Tampa, Fla., to follow him, and he benefited when he hit his 14-year-old sister, Theresa, on the leg on the fifth hole, keeping his ball from bouncing into the woods. “I’ve got an ice cream cone or something to play homage to her,” Stanger said.

The Gamecocks had four players finish in the top 15, as freshman Scott Stevens tied for ninth at 3-under 213, and senior Will Starke and sophomore Keenan Huskey tied for 15th and were also under par at 215. Freshman Will Miles entered the final round 5-under par but shot a 79 to tie for 31st at 218. He was 6 under Tuesday in Aiken before shooting a 5-over 75 in the final round.

“It’s good to kind of throw these freshmen, with Scott and Will Miles, throw them into the thick of things, especially being in contention the last two tournaments, and see how they handle it,” NeSmith said. “Now we have a little grasp of what Miles kind of does, he’s hopefully getting the freshman jitters out now so when we’re in contention later on in the year he can learn from these two weeks. He’ll get it done and he’ll learn from it.”

The Gamecocks now have two wins and a third-place finish this spring.

“We played some amazing golf this week,” South Carolina coach Bill McDonald said. “Hopefully we’re not peaking too soon. I think this team does have a lot of upside when we get everybody rolling and I think you saw that this week.

“When [NeSmith] gets to playing like this you just know if you get a little bit of help you’re probably going to be in contention.”

Host Coastal Carolina tied for 12th in the 15-team tournament with rounds of 303, 293 and 294 for a 26-over total, and junior Alfredo Ruiz was the only Chanticleer in the top 50, tying for 31st at 2-over 218.

“We played better today,” Coastal coach Kevin McPherson said. “That first round, shooting 15-over in the first round was the big deficit. … That first round hurt us so much when it was the easiest conditions.

“I think we have [intra-squad] qualifying every tournament because it’s just so sporadic who’s going to show up. We haven’t defined our perfect five on the roster for the lineup, and until we do, until those guys step up to the plate, we’ll keep giving other guys chances.”

NeSmith could have been playing in a professional tournament this week if he made a different decision over the summer.

“It didn’t feel right for me,” he said. “If I would have turned pro, and during August through October, my mind wouldn’t be on golf. My mind would be on being at football games and being with my teammates and being in Columbia. My thoughts wouldn’t quite be in the right spot. I couldn’t really tell you why exactly, it just didn’t feel right.

“Especially when I’m so close to graduating, and I really wanted to graduate and have one more year with these guys and throw one more shot at it, and be a 22-year-old kid for another eight months.”

He had a spot reserved for him in the PGA Tour’s RBC Heritage next month based on his win in the 2015 Players Amateur, but he has declined the invitation to play with his teammates in the concurrent SEC Championship.

“It really wasn’t all that difficult [of a decision],” NeSmith said. “If I wanted to play in the Heritage I would have turned pro last year. I made a commitment to my team to play college golf and the SEC is to us the second biggest tournament of the year after nationals. So I wanted to be there to try to defend my title and try to get this team a team win because we’ve been so close throughout my three years here and I want to give it one more shot.”

Team scores–South Carolina 281-279-281–841 (-23), Virginia 287-276-285–848 (-16), Kent State 291-282-279–852 (-12), North Carolina 284-289-282–855 (-9), North Carolina State 285-284-288–857 (-7), Texas A&M 283-288-288–859 (-5), North Florida 280-299-282–861 (-3), Charleston Southern 290-291-287–868 (+4), Charlotte 283-298-297 (+14), East Carolina 298-288-295–881 (+17), Iowa State 292-299-297–888 (+24), Chattanooga 301-297-292–890 (+26), Coastal Carolina 303-293-294–890 (+26), Virginia Tech 297-295-299–891 (+27), Winthrop 303-311-308–922 (+58).

Top 10–Matthew NeSmith (South Carolina) 73-67-67–207 (-9), Jimmy Stanger (Virginia 70-66-71–207 (-9), Austin James (Charleston Southern) 71-70-68–209 (Gisli Sveinbergsson (Ken State) 70-68-72–210 (-6), R.J. Keur (Charleston Southern) 70-71-70–211 (-5), Jacob McBride (North Carolina State) 68-72-71–211 (-5), Taylor Hancock (North Florida) 69-72-71–212 (-4), Josh Wahlen (Kent State) 74-67-71–212 (-4), Cameron Champ (Texas A&M) 70-72-71–213 (-3), Scott Stevens (South Carolina) 72-69-72–213 (-3), Danny Walker (Virginia) 70-71-72–213 (-3).

CCU players–t31, Alfredo Ruiz (75-71-72–218), t52, Thadd Obency II (76-73-75–224), 61, Luis Ruiz (78-76-73–227), t62, Olle Widegren (77-77-74–228), 84, Ryan Carpenter (75-73-DNF).

Alan Blondin: 843-626-0284, @alanblondin