BURLINGTON, Iowa – Emilio Cuartero bent his knees and thrust both arms into the air after making a 9-foot putt at Spirit Hollow’s 18th green. He looked like an Olympic powerlifter raising a bar above his head.
Cuartero and his Missouri teammates think they may be doing plenty of lifting this season, but of trophies, not weights. The Tigers have held the lead in every round they’ve played this season. They went wire-to-wire in a 19-shot victory at the Turning Stone Intercollegiate, and now have a three-shot lead after the first round of the Golfweek Conference Challenge after shooting 2-under 286 at Spirit Hollow Golf Course.
“I was motivating the team,” Cuartero, a junior from Lleida, Spain, said of his 18th-green celebration. “We’re going to play well. We just need to believe it.”
Missouri is led by senior Jace Long, who also has led after every round of the 2012-13 season. He won Turning Stone by 10 shots and is tied for the lead at Spirit Hollow after a 4-under 68. Long is 19 under in four rounds this year, with a 67.25 scoring average. The Turning Stone victory was the eighth of his Missouri career.
Long made bogey on two of his first three holes Sunday, but also made seven birdies to tie for the individual lead with Iowa’s Steven Ihm. “I was hitting fairways and hitting it close enough to make putts,” Long said. “It was a pretty consistent day.”
He made five birdie putts inside 5 feet Sunday, including a near-ace at the 154-yard, par-3 seventh hole, where he hit 9-iron to 6 inches.
It’s important for a team to have a strong lead player that provides confidence for his teammates, but Missouri got solid contributions from all five of its players, including two late-round comebacks that helped the Tigers take the lead.
Missouri also counted a 72 by Ryan Zech and 73s from Cuartero and Hunter Kraus on Sunday. Freshman Jacob Fair shot 75; that score would’ve counted for every other team in the field. Cuartero and Kraus used strong finishes to salvage good rounds and help the Tigers take a three-shot lead over Ball State.
Cuartero made the turn in 1 under, but made double-bogey at Nos. 12 and 13 and a bogey at the 15th to reach 4 over. The double-bogeys were the result of a missed 2-foot putt on 12 and a hooked tee shot on 13 that resulted in a lost-ball penalty. He thought he’d ruined his good round in a matter of minutes. “I had to do something for the team,” Cuartero said. He holed a 15-foot birdie putt at the 16th hole, then sank a 9-footer for eagle on the 18th after reaching the green in two shots with a 3-iron.
Kraus, who Cuartero calls “the bomber,” made birdie on the final two holes. He had just 128 yards remaining for his second shot on the 445-yard, par-4 17th. He hit his approach to 15 feet and made the putt, then reached the 18th green in two shots with a 6-iron and two-putted for birdie. Kraus is coming off a third-place finish at Turning Stone.
“We’re feeling confident,” said Long, who finished 72nd in last year’s Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings. “It’s nice to have all five guys contributing. We’ve got the talent. It’s a matter of us playing like we can. We’re looking forward to it.”
Missouri picked a good time to put together a strong team. This is the Tigers’ first season in the SEC. The move hasn’t had much impact on the team – except that the Tigers have a date at Sea Island Golf Club for the conference championship – but Cuartero said the school-wide enthusiasm for something new has been “contagious.”
Whether Long is on the team come conference-championship time remains to be seen. He plays PGA Tour Q-School in Nebraska the day after the Golfweek Conference Challenge ends. He said his good recent play has been the result of better control with the driver, something that was crucial Sunday and to his good play this season.
“Jace kind of carries us,” said teammate Hunter Kraus. “We all know it.”
Maybe so, but every player in Missouri’s lineup played an important role Sunday, which is why the Tigers have a good feeling about this season.