Buckley and Missouri men’s golf prepare for SEC Tournament

Assistant coach Grant Milner: “I wish we had 12 Hayden Buckleys.”
Golf bags line up during practice on April 11 at The Club at Old Hawthorne.

Hayden Buckley says he was under-recruited, and through two seasons, so too does his performance.

The sophomore golfer and the Missouri men’s golf team will travel to St. Simons Island, Georgia, on Wednesday to play in the Southeastern Conference Tournament at Sea Island Golf Club. For Buckley, this will be his first crack at the conference’s biggest stage, something he’s been looking forward to since joining the Tigers out of high school.

“When it came down to my decision, it was Mizzou and Rice, and it really wasn’t a hard decision,” Buckley said. “I knew the SEC Tournament was huge and knew I’d get to play friends back home and play the best competition in the country, and the SEC name definitely has a lot of weight.”

Everything in golf these days seems to be going younger — PGA Tour star Jordan Spieth and the youth movement that’s followed him — and Missouri’s 2015–16 roster fits that mold.

Of those starting for Mizzou in Georgia, only two have played the golf course that will host all 14 SEC teams come Thursday. Buckley isn’t one of those, but he has turned in five top-20 individual performances and has been the only Tiger to remain in the lineup all season.

What’s propelled him to this level? “His work ethic,” assistant coach Grant Milner said.

The sophomore’s performance has been a little bit surprising to the coaching staff.

“For him, as a sophomore, to step up the way that he has and lead us in scoring all year has been really impressive,” Milner said. “It’s just a testament to his work ethic. I wish we had 12 Hayden Buckleys. We’d be better off if we did for sure.”

Junior golfer and Sweden native Linus Lilliedahl attested to that.

“Hayden is incredible,” Lilliedahl said. “He always posts some really low scores and has been doing that throughout the season, so it’s key to have a player like him. He’s been evolving and growing really good as a golfer this season, and it’s great to have him around.”

The Tigers began the season by winning the Turning Stone Invitational in Verona, New York, for the fourth straight season, but they have failed to place in the top three in their eight events since.

But in a year that serves as a step to the rebuild that first-year assistant Milner and head coach Mark Leroux are attempting to accomplish, the Tigers are peaking at the right time.

“We’ve been playing our best golf of the season and we’re going into a tournament where everybody is in front of us, so we’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain,” Milner said. “A lot of teams are there and showing up saying, ‘We don’t want to lose to Missouri,’ and we are kind of in an attack mindset, so I feel really good.”

The team leaves Columbia on Wednesday and have a quick turnaround before the tournament begins on Friday. Although the stage is big and the competition is steep, “the course is tough,” Milner said.

Fortunately, though, Mizzou will play a one-day practice round on Thursday to prepare to play on the golf club rated No. 1 in the U.S. among the "World's 50 Best Golf Hotels" by Golf Digest Index.

“I think this course really sets up for me,” Buckley said. “It’s a ball-striker’s course, and my ball-striking has been really good this year. I’ve been waiting on my putting and short game to come around, so I think I’m kind of due for a good few days.”

And as much as swing is an advantage for Buckley, so too is his mental game heading into the weekend.

“I’m pretty confident and telling myself that things are going to work out (this week),” Buckley said.

Edited by Theo DeRosa | tderosa@themaneater.com

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