Golf is a big-time attraction at the Sea Island Resort.
And this week, a big-time tournament will be staged at the Sea Island Golf Club as the SEC Men’s Golf Championship returns to the Seaside Course on St. Simons Island.
The tournament, which takes place Wednesday through Sunday, is usually one of the hardest to win in collegiate golf and it will be that way again, what with 13 of the 14 teams in the conference currently among the top 50 in the latest Golfweek/Sagarin Rankings.
“The SEC has had a great year in men’s golf,” said Charlie Hussey, an associate commissioner for the conference and this week’s tournament director. “Eight of our teams are in the top 25 right now and there are several just beyond that which could compete for the title this week. It’s extremely difficult to win this tournament, and the course is challenging especially if we get some wind. It makes for pretty exciting golf.”
The SEC has been coming to Sea Island since 2001 and has been played on the par-70, 6,898-yard Seaside Course every year since 2010. The tournament was held at Seaside from 2001 to 2007 before moving to the Frederica Golf Club for both 2008 and 2009 before returning to its original home the following spring.
The tournament will feature 54 holes of stroke play Wednesday, Thursday and Friday with the top eight teams advancing to the match play portion of the tournament on the weekend.
The match-play quarterfinals and semifinals will be played on Saturday with the championship match scheduled for Sunday. The SEC Network + will provide live coverage of the semifinals starting at 4 p.m. Saturday and the SEC Network will broadcast the finals starting at 7:30 a.m. Sunday.
This year’s tournament will include five teams currently ranked in the top 10 in the national polls with defending SEC champion Vanderbilt leading the pack as the country’s second-ranked team. The Commodores are followed by last year’s conference runner-up, Texas A&M, which is currently ranked third. The Aggies are followed in the rankings by No. 6 Alabama, No. 7 Auburn and No. 9 LSU.
Other conference teams in the Top 25 include No. 11 Florida, No. 15 Arkansas and No. 23 Kentucky.
Those teams rated inside the top 50 are No. 32 Ole Miss, No. 34 Missouri, No. 43 South Carolina, No 45 Tennessee and No. 48 Georgia.
The SEC also currently has 33 of the top 100 individual players in the nation based on rankings.
“It’s the best conference in the country in my opinion,” said Florida coach JC Deacon. “Someone was saying that every team is going to make NCAA Regionals and that is just an amazing testament to all of the coaches and players. It’s the highest level and that’s why these guys came to Florida. They wanted the opportunity to play against the best and they have an opportunity to do that this weekend.”
Local fan favorite Georgia has won six of the previous 17 championships played at Sea Island and the Bulldogs have won a league-best 29 conference crowns overall.
The Bulldogs have won eight SEC titles under current head coach Chris Haack including the six at Sea Island. Georgia is a long-shot to hoist the championship trophy this week, but the team isn’t about to concede anything before the first tee shots are struck.
“This team isn’t as veteran as others we’ve taken to the SECs,” Haack said. “That’s a little different for us, but our goals remain the same. We want to go down there and play as steady and as consistent as we can in stroke play and then take our shot in match play.
“The biggest thing about college golf is learning to play without fear. When you’re playing for a school like Georgia and you’re young, you immediately have more nerves than you should and you’re more uptight than you should be. That’s all part of the learning curve. These guys have had a baptism by fire, which can be tough at the beginning but ultimately will be a good thing. They’ve made huge strides in a short amount of time, so there’s no doubt in my mind that we will be in contention to win the SEC title.”
Florida’s Alejandro Tosti is back to defend his individual title. The senior for the Gators shot 10-under-par 200 over the 54 holes of stroke play last year before helping Florida reach the semifinals in match play.
Vanderbilt won it first team conference title last season after finishing first in the stroke-play competition. The Commodores went 3-0 in match play, winning all their match-ups by 3-2 scores including the championship showdown against the Aggies in which the clinching match went 23 holes.
Vandy also won the stroke-play portion of the NCAA tournament last year before falling in the semifinals of match play.
The Commodores have won four times this season, but head coach Scott Limbaugh said the team hasn’t realized its full potential thus far this year.
“We have not played our best golf as a team yet this year, which is exciting, and hopefully we can come closer to doing that during this next phase of our season,” Limbaugh said. “This time of the year is really about choosing confidence, focusing on the right things, and playing with passion. When our guys do those things it shows me that our team matters to them.
“It’s about having fun and embracing this opportunity we have. If we want to be a great team then we are going to have to do the small and simple things at a higher level than we have up to this point.”
Limbaugh added that the trip to Sea Island to play for the SEC crown is a treat for all of the teams and players.
“This week and this championship are just so much fun for everyone,” he said. “Sea Island is a great place for all of our families and fans to get to travel to and Seaside is a great venue for our student-athletes to have the opportunity to compete.”
There is a good chance this year’s SEC tournament could come down to a rematch between the Commodores and Aggies who have finished second each of the last two times at Sea Island.
With four of five players returning from last season’s squad including All-American Chandler Phillips, A&M is hoping to finish on top this go-round.
“We’ve had two really good chances to win the last few years,” said Aggies coach J.T. Higgins. “The guys really brought their best stuff out here to Sea Island and I have no doubt they will again this year.
“If you keep putting yourself in that position, eventually you are going to come away with one. We aren’t going to do anything different, just go and play the golf course the way we know how. I believe we will be right there again with a chance to win.”
Alabama has won the SEC event four times at Sea Island while Florida has won twice. Other teams who have won here include Auburn, Kentucky, LSU and Tennessee.
Last year was the first time the conference used the match-play format to decide the champion. The NCAA went to the format in 2009.
“The NCAA had a successful transition to match play, and we decided to try it,” Hussey said. “Hopefully, it helps our guys prepare for the rest of the postseason. It was definitely a success last year. Our women’s tournament used it for the first time this year, and it was successful there, too.”
Hussey added the the conference is thrilled to provide fans with live television coverage for the first time this year.
“That’s a real enhancement,” he said. “We did it last week for the first time at the women’s tournament and had a good response. We’re excited to have it for the men’s tournament as well. We have great teams and players that deserve the coverage.”
The Seaside Course which also serves as host of the PGA Tour’s RSM Classic each fall, always shines on television with scenic views of the tidal creeks, saltmarshes, dunes and the St. Simons Sound which frames the course.
The backdrop is a fitting one for the SEC championship which is one of the premier tournaments in college golf.
“The SEC and the Sea Island Golf Club had have a tremendous partnership,” Hussey said. “The golf club produces great memories for our student-athletes, and this tournament continues to be a highlight of the year.”
The tournament is open to the public.