If you believe that Division II stands for second rate, you better not stand too close to the pin when USC Aiken's golf team plays through.
"Some people think if you're not Division I, you're nothing - but not in golf," said USC Aiken senior Dane Burkhart, the reigning national champion. "I'm a huge advocate for Division II golf because it's so underrated."
His advocacy - mostly done with his clubs - has been noticed. Consider that among the 26 finalists on the Ben Hogan Award watch list for the top collegiate golfer in the nation, only two don't play for Division I programs. Both are Pacers - Scott Brown and Burkhart.
"It's just a huge honor to even be considered," said Burkhart.
The two-time defending Division II champion Pacers have a chance to change a few more perceptions this week. After what should be a routine victory (they almost always win) Tuesday, they head to Texas to put themselves up against the best teams in the nation at the Hall of Fame Invitational.
USC Aiken, in fact, will be paired with Division I champ Georgia and Division III champ Guilford in the first round.
Aside from trying to three-peat as national champs, this is the week the Pacers have had circled all year.
"The team we have this year is strong enough depth wise to compete with Division I teams," Burkhart said. "We want to show we can compete."
USC Aiken got its first taste of the Hall of Fame Invitational last year and acquitted itself well with a tie for eighth with Kentucky, Oklahoma and Texas. The Pacers hope for even better this time.
"You're kind of star-struck," Burkhart said of playing with the most recognized teams and individuals in college golf. "It would be like me finally playing with Tiger Woods. You want to compete, but you're really nervous."
Nervous is usually a word that describes teams on the same golf course with USC Aiken. With good justification.
For the past couple of years, the Pacers have been setting a winning pace that even Woods would envy. Dating to their first national title in 2004, USC Aiken has claimed first place in 16 of 19 tournaments.
That includes five of six already this season - the lone setback being a third place behind Division I programs Texas A&M and North Carolina.
"We can kind of sense it when we come to a tournament," Burkhart said of the intimidation factor. "We can feel the target on our back and hear people talking on the range. It's a lot more fun in golf being the top gun and everybody chasing for you."
It would be foolish to bet against the Pacers this week, when they play host to the Palmetto Intercollegiate on Monday and Tuesday. Not only are they familiar with the course, but Burkhart shot 59 at Palmetto Golf Club in the final round of last year's Palmetto Amateur.
He edged out Brown, who had posted 60 a few weeks earlier.
"I think about that round every day since it happened," said Burkhart. "I can't imagine that score being sniffed again."
While USC Aiken's program has been among the strongest in Division II since coach Michael Carlisle arrived 16 years ago, it took a couple of home-grown players to take the Pacers to the heady level they are now.
Burkhart, of South Aiken, and Brown, of North Augusta, were the ingredients Carlisle needed to get over the hump and start winning tournaments and championships.
Either one could easily be top players at some of the best colleges in the country, but they developed at their own pace in their own back yard.
"The whole thing in college is learning how to win, and we've done that," Burkhart said. "Once we learned to win tournaments, it became easier."
The same could be said for Carlisle's job. The success of Brown and Burkhart helped him blur the distinction even more between D-II and D-I, allowing him to stock this year's Pacers with a depth most Division II programs (and some Division I) only dream of.
"I've raised my expectations for myself as far as recruiting," Carlisle said. "I kind of found the kids that fell through the cracks before.
"I still do that, but now I go for front-line players as well."
And they are listening to the pitch. Freshmen Matt Giftos and Roberto Gonzalez could have signed with a Division I program, but they saw the success USC Aiken was having and committed to learning how to win with a proven winner.
"Success breeds success," Carlisle said.
And at USC Aiken, there's no end in sight.
Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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