BURLINGTON, Iowa – Missouri senior Jace Long departed Spirit Hollow Golf Club on Tuesday afternoon and headed 300 miles due west in his 2006 Scion tC. He left with a trophy in hand, but was unsure what he might expect when he was to arrive at his destination at about 8:30 p.m.
Long is playing Q-School as an amateur, taking a shot at a PGA Tour card before drastic changes to the Tour’s qualifying structure take effect next season. The Q-School’s pre-qualifying stage was scheduled to begin Wednesday at ArborLinks in Nebraska City, Neb. Long wasn’t sure of his first-round tee time when he left Spirit Hollow, but he could be confident in one thing: His game is in good form.
Long shot 9-under 207 (68-69-70) at the Golfweek Conference Challenge at Spirit Hollow to finish two shots ahead of Iowa’s Steven Ihm (68-71-70) and Tulsa’s Chris Worrell (71-67-71). It was Long’s second victory in two starts this season. He has held at least a share of the lead after all six rounds. His final-round 70 at Spirit Hollow ended a streak of five consecutive rounds in the 60s to open the season. He’s 24 under par (68.0 scoring average) after also winning the season-opening Turning Stone Intercollegiate by 10 shots.
“It’s been exciting,” Long said.
His strong play also has led the Tigers to consecutive victories. They finished at 7-under 857 (286-286-285) to beat Wake Forest (294-281-290) by eight shots at the Conference Challenge. Like Long, the Tigers have been under par in every round this year and led every round. They won Turning Stone by 19 shots.
Ryan Zech shot a team-low 69 for Missouri on Tuesday. He finished sixth individually. Hunter Kraus finished 12th, while Emilio Cuartero tied for 15th and Jacob Fair finished T-29. Head coach Mark Leroux said depth has been key to the team’s success. The team’s No. 5 position contributed just one shot in last season’s spring events, he said.
“I saw this as a very dangerous field,” Leroux said, referring to the large number of strong mid-major teams at the Conference Challenge. “I was proud we put our necks out and played well.”
Missouri is in its first season in the Southeastern Conference. The team couldn’t ask for a better start to its inaugural year in one of the nation’s strongest golf conferences.
Long started Tuesday with a one-shot lead over Worrell, who opened the final round birdie-eagle to take a two-shot lead.
“I knew he was a good player and he was going to make a run at me,” Long said. “I just tried to play my best and focus on what I was doing.”
Worrell made bogeys on Nos. 3 and 8, though, and Long birdied Nos. 6, 7 and 9 to take a three-shot lead at the turn. He was four shots ahead with three holes remaining, but made bogey after missing the fairway on the par-4 16th. Worrell made a tap-in birdie at No. 17 to get within two shots. There’s water right and tall grass left on No. 18, but Long found the fairway with his tee shot. He laid up, and Worrell’s second shot on the par 5 ended up just right of the green.
Long’s third shot finished some 40 feet short of the hole, and Worrell’s chip ran about 6 feet past. Long lagged to 3 feet to all but ensure victory.
Finding the fairway at No. 18 was crucial to Long’s victory. He said improved driving has been the key to his recent run. He was known as a wild driver with a knack for skillful recovery when he used to play a high draw off the tee. He switched to a fade about a month ago for consistency’s sake.
“I like it a lot better,” Long said of the new shot shape, “instead of going up there and trying to rip a draw down the fairway, which I didn’t know where it was going to go. It’s helped my confidence. I’ve given myself a lot more opportunities to hit it close.”
Long now has 10 collegiate victories. He won the 2011 NCAA Southeast Regional with a final-round 62 that tied the school record. He also holds the school 54-hole scoring record (199). He tied for first at last year’s Western Refining All-American, the all-star event of college golf, before losing to Alabama’s Cory Whitsett in a playoff.
How Long will fare in his first Q-School foray remains to be seen. But he couldn’t ask for better form entering the event.