Brr, y'all: Southern discomfort on road to Gator

John Darden of Mississippi State University during the final round of the SunTrust Gator Invitational on the Mark Bostick Golf Course.

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The best way to prepare for a college tournament? Playing a few practice rounds seems a logical start, but it wasn’t quite that simple for the Mississippi State men’s team, which opened its spring season Feb. 12 at the SunTrust Gator Invitational. Before the Bulldogs flew out of the local airport, the campus in Starkville was under 5 inches of snow, which, of course, constitutes a blizzard in the Deep South.

“People were freaking out,” said Mississippi State sophomore John Darden. “They didn’t know what to do.”

An unusually cold winter has made practicing an exercise in creativity for the Bulldogs. Classes have twice been canceled, and MSU’s rotation of courses – Old Waverly, Starkville Country Club and the University Course – each have been closed at least five days. So what’s a college golfer to do? Darden said he and his teammates threw down mats in the football team’s indoor practice facility and wailed away on 5-irons. They frequented indoor hitting bays. They spent a few hours in a golf simulator. They did mirror work, they putted on the living-room carpet, they just thought about golf.

Last week, before making the trip to Gainesville, Darden said he played the coldest round of golf in his life: winter gloves between shots, sleet at the end, four layers of clothes on top and bottom. “Not fun,” he said.

So was it any surprise that Mississippi State struggled to a 12th-place finish at the Gator, 59 strokes behind champion Florida?

“We don’t want to use it as an excuse,” Darden said, “but it doesn’t help to have only a few good weeks to practice.”

• • •

Seminole struggles

On his second hole of the Gator Invite, Florida State senior Drew Kittleson spun a 9-iron down the slope on the 145-yard, par-3 11th at Mark Bostick Golf Course. It funneled into the hole for an ace, his second hole-in-one. That was the highlight.

Fifty-six holes later, and in a sudden-death playoff for medalist honors on Feb. 13, Kittleson blew his drive way right on the fourth hole, punched back near the fairway and couldn’t get up-and-down from short of the green, handing the individual title to Florida’s Andres Echavarria. That’s the way it has gone lately for the Seminoles, who were seventh at the Gator Invite, 25 shots behind champion Florida. An NCAA semifinalist a year ago, Florida State, No. 49 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings, has a head-to-record record of 32-50. (Teams need at least a .500 record to be eligible for the postseason.)

“Our short games are really bad right now,” Florida State coach Trey Jones said. “We’re not sharp in that area at all. And we haven’t handled adversity like we probably should, probably because some (preseason) expectations might have been untrue or were unwarranted at the time. That might (have) put extra pressure on them. Really, we just have to focus on the small things that makes these guys good players.”

• • • 

Kissing a winning set goodbye

The thrill of victory still fresh, Florida’s Andres Echavarria came to a sobering realization on Sunday: The next day, he was ditching his irons and wedges. Not because they were underperforming, mind you. Instead, he was upgrading his TaylorMade Tour Preferred irons because, in two weeks, he will tee it up at the Nationwide Tour stop in his native Colombia, and his old clubs’ grooves are nonconforming for tour competition.

“Have to change them tomorrow,” Echavarria sighed after winning the Gator Invite. “Might not be a bad thing, though. They might be golden.”

As for playing against the best in golf’s minor leagues, Echavarria is just grateful for the measuring stick.

“You always want to play against the pros, to see how good you really are,” he said. “Golf in South America is really expanding, and I’m happy to be a part of that. Hopefully it keeps going.”

• • • 

Jags still seeking first title

Led by Patrick Reed’s tie for third, defending NCAA champion Augusta State recorded another top-3 team finish this week, at the Battle of the Beach in Newport Beach, Calif. The Jaguars, however, still are without a victory this season, and they are No. 18 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings.

• • • 

A look ahead . . .

What: John Burns Intercollegiate

When: Feb. 16-18

Where: Turtle Bay Resort, Oahu, Hawaii

Why it’s important: A pretty strong field, with five of the top 60 teams in Golfweek’s rankings, led by No. 8 Texas A&M, the 2009 NCAA champion. The Aggies got progressively better in their last three fall starts: T-4 at Ping/Golfweek Preview; third at the U.S. Collegiate; second at the Royal Oaks Intercollegiate. Also in the field are No. 16 Virginia and No. 19 California. The Bears feature an intriguing 1-2 punch in Max Homa and Byeong-Hun An.

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