Make no mistake, the SIU men’s golf team is excited for the opportunity to open play in the NCAA Tournament Sunday at the Columbus Regional.
But if you think they’re just going to treat it as a four-day sojourn where they can stay in a nice hotel, play a Jack Nicklaus-designed course and throw up social media photos to tell the world where they are, you might want to think again.
“This is a business trip,” said senior Matthis Besard.
And the Salukis’ business is the same as the other 12 teams seeded above them – finish in the top five. Only the top five teams will move on to the championship event, scheduled for May 27-June 1 in Scottsdale, Ariz.
On paper, the odds seem stacked against SIU. In relation to other teams, their resume is light. They have played just one of the other 12 programs in Columbus – Wright State, which they defeated in a multi-team event.
That they are the 13th-seeded team in a 13-team event is irritating, but only to a point. As Besard pointed out last week after the Salukis learned where they would play, top-seeded Oklahoma State won’t start the regional with a 20-stroke advantage.
People are also reading…
“It’s plenty of motivation for us,” said senior Birgir Magnusson. “To me, this is a dream come true. I didn’t even start out in DI, and I transferred here. And now I’m going to the regionals. This is very special to me.”
Magnusson is one player who has something to prove. The native of Iceland played his first two seasons at NAIA school Bethany (Kan.), setting the school 54-hole scoring record at 11-under par 205. He also won an individual conference championship as a freshman.
But he wanted to test himself at a higher level, transferring to SIU for his junior year. That was also the year sports and most other forms of entertainment grinded to a halt for months because of COVID-19.
Magnusson was one of the athletes who got an extra year of eligibility due to the pandemic, thanks to an NCAA ruling administered days after COVID-19 shut down winter championships and the rest of the 2020 spring sports season.
He, Besard, Tom Cleaton and Markus Wilhelmsen all finished in the top 10 at the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament last month in Paducah, Ky. With that kind of balance, SIU was able to post a 17-stroke win, the largest margin of victory in the conference tourney since 2015.
The next challenge is doing it on Ohio State’s Scarlet Course, the one designed by arguably its greatest alum. And it’s unlikely that the Salukis’ winning score of 10-over par in Paducah will get them within hailing distance of the top five. The lowest score SIU has posted as a team for 36 holes is 11-under par 853 in February at a tournament held in St. George, Utah.
No matter what the numbers say or what the quality of opposition is – and top 5 seeds Oklahoma State, Georgia Tech, Arkansas, Clemson and East Tennessee State are all the opposition a team could ask for – the Salukis can play with house money.
“I know for myself, from an objective standpoint, we can go out and beat those big teams,” Besard said. “We might be a 13 seed, but we’re ready to go show them.”
The regional runs through Wednesday.