HUTCHINSON, Kan. – South Carolina’s Will Starke was all smiles when he walked off the 18th green Saturday at Prairie Dunes Country Club. A 6-under 64 in the opening round of the NCAA Championship will do that to you.
But it’s been Starke’s ability to stay positive through the bad rounds that has made the biggest difference for the Gamecocks sophomore.
“As far as I can remember, I’ve been really hard on myself, since I was 3 or 4 (years old) playing baseball,” said Starke, who held a two-shot clubhouse lead after the morning wave finished up a rain-delayed first round.
“It was just a bad habit and over the last year and a half I’ve been trying to break that habit. You can’t do it at once; it’s a process. But I’ve just kept going at it and working on it, and it has really paid off.”
The turning point for Starke came last spring when South Carolina coach Bill McDonald pulled Starke, then a freshman, out of the lineup. Wanting to re-earn his starting spot and improve his mental game, Starke started to progressively mature.
“He just keeps getting better with handling his emotions. . . . He’s actually light years from that point,” McDonald said.
To show just how far Starke has come, here’s a humorous example: In February, the team competed in the Toilet Bowl Open, a team competition over 54 holes in which the loser had to clean another teammate’s bathroom. Starke lost.
“He’s recovered well,” McDonald said with a smile. “But that’s part of that mental strength he’s been working on.”
Starke has five top 10s this season, including a victory at the Seahawk Intercollegiate. His play on the golf course has improved, and a stronger mental game has allowed him to help one of his teammates.
Junior Caleb Sturgeon has one victory this season, but hasn’t finished better than T-13 in his other 10 starts.
“I haven’t really had my best season this year,” Sturgeon said. “I’ve played some OK golf, but overall I’ve struggled as a whole.”
Said McDonald: “Caleb, he’s struggled this spring. They’re both really close and Starke’s been able to keep Caleb pumped up.”
The closeness developed about five years ago. Starke and Sturgeon are both from South Carolina, Starke from Chapin and Sturgeon from Laurens, and they played high school and junior golf against each other numerous times. When they got to South Carolina, their friendship strengthened.
Now they’re roommates, not only living together off campus but also rooming together for every tournament on the road this season. While neither are great cooks – “We don’t wash dishes because we never eat at our apartment,” Sturgeon said. – they get along well and joke around with each other constantly.
“They’re both extremely sarcastic kind of kids, smart alecks,” McDonald joked, “so they fit in well together.”
Starke said, “We’re like brothers,” while Sturgeon added, “We have a great relationship and we feed off of each other.”
The looseness keeps life at home fun, but it’s also helped the two on the golf course. While Starke has already showcased the benefits of handling his emotions well, Sturgeon is beginning to follow suit. He shot 66 Saturday, the second best round of the morning along with SMU’s Austin Smotherman.
“He’s really talented, but he sometimes can put a little too much pressure on himself to play well every round,” Starke said of Sturgeon. “We just try to keep encouraging him and he’ll come out of it eventually. Hopefully, the round he played today will start something good for the rest of the tournament.”
South Carolina posted the best team score of the morning, as well, totaling 8-under 272. The team barely got through five holes during a delay-filled Friday, but spent the downtime doing what it does best – joking around.
“We were really relaxed and really loose all day, and it definitely helped,” Starke said.
Now, the Gamecocks will have some time to recharge.
“We’re running on a little bit of adrenaline right now,” McDonald said.
Their bodies might be tired, but their mental games remain strong – and Starke and Sturgeon are prime examples.