April 17, 2018 11:37:19 PM
WEST POINT -- Once again, Dusty Smith happened to be there for the biggest moment of Garrett Johnson's round.
Mississippi State's men's golf coach, in making his rounds around Old Waverly Golf Club, was there when Johnson looked over his second shot on the par 5 15th. Smith gave Johnson a yardage to the front of the green, 240 yards, which just so happens to be a perfect 3 wood. Johnson hit it to 30 feet away and made the putt for eagle.
That eagle was the highlight of Johnson's back nine surge to a 4-under par 68 in Tuesday's final round of the Old Waverly Collegiate Championship, his best performance of the tournament as he finished tied for fifth as an individual at 2-under par. He was the only Bulldog in the top 10, but three more in the top 25 helped the Bulldogs finish fourth as a team in their home event.
"He obviously did a great job, he's really bought into what we're trying to do here the whole year. From where he was in the fall to where he is now is night and day," Smith said. "He's not worrying about results, he's just going about his business and seeing what happens."
Early on, it was a string of bogeys. Johnson's bogeys on 4, 6 and 7 for a 1-over front nine looked like he could have played his way out of the top of the leaderboard on a day when 17 players went under par. Luck played a part in it -- Johnson hit the cart path down the left side on No. 6, bouncing him into a hazard he might not have found otherwise -- but overall, it was not his sharpest of days.
That all changed with consecutive birdies around the turn. The 9th hole was his first time using the driver-3 wood combo to go under par on a par 5, before a birdie on 10 that he thought set him up well for the toughest stretch on the course.
"11, 12 and 13 were into the wind and they're the hardest holes on the course," Johnson said.
He got through it at even par before playing the final five holes 4-under.
While the front nine was eating up Johnson and most of the Bulldogs, MSU freshman Cameron Clarke used it to shoot 20 spots up the individual leaderboard in the final round. Clarke birdied Nos. 2, 3 and 9 to finish the front nine 3-under on his way to a 1-under 71.
It was a dramatic improvement from his opening round 83, 11-over par. MSU was able to drop that 83 form the team score, but Clarke bounced back for a 73 and 71 in the final two rounds that MSU used for its team score.
"I told him he needs to set the tone for the entire day," Smith said. "I can't say enough about him. I like to call it a character tournament for him: he could've handed it in, but he didn't and he did a heck of a job for a freshman."
Johnson and Clarke were joined by Taylor Bibbs, Peng Pichaikool and Taylor Grant in making MSU's team score and fourth-place finish. As an individual, Bibbs shot a 1-over 73 to finish the tournament 6-over and tie for 22nd; Pichaikool and Grant were one strike back in the tie for 24th.
The three nationally ranked teams in tournament swept the podium: No. 10 LSU won with No. 20 South Florida in second and No. 34 Ole Miss in third. The Tigers were led by the tied for third finishes from Luis Gagne and Trey Winstead at 4-under; the individual medalist was Ole Miss' Braden Thornberry at 12-under par. Tuesday's final round was his best round, a 6-under 66.
Smith credited the Old Waverly staff for getting the course to be, "a true test of golf," after more than two inches of rain the day before the tournament began with 36 holes of play.
This was MSU's final action before the SEC Championship Tournament, beginning April 25 at Sea Island Country Club in Sea Island, Georgia. With MSU settling into the Pichaikool, Johnson, Bibbs, Grant and Clarke lineup and four-straight top five team finishes, Smith is confident about the Bulldogs going into it.
"I really do feel good about our team, I really like this team," Smith said. "We're starting to get a consistent lineup and they're tough guys, they're tough competitors."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter
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