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March 7, 2013

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COLUMBIA, S.C. — The South Carolina women’s golf team will open play on Friday in one of the premier tournaments in collegiate golf as it hosts the second annual Darius Rucker Intercollegiate in Hilton Head Island, S.C.

The 54-hole tournament runs through Sunday on the award-winning Pete Dye course at Long Cove Club. South Carolina head coach Kalen Harris believes last year’s inaugural event was one of the best in the country and has no doubts this weekend will be even better.

“We are very excited about the event,” Harris said. “It’s an event that our director of golf Puggy Blackmon came up with. We are very fortunate that Long Cove latched on to it. It’s a tournament that we turned over to them, and they roll with it. The membership and the staff over there with Bob Patton have given up their golf course and produce a first-class event.”

The Gamecocks are looking to build off a seventh-place showing at the UCF Challenge to open the spring, which is their best finish of the season. Sophomore Justine Dreher led the way as she matched her career best with a tie for 12th finish, shooting rounds of 68-76-74=218 (+2).

Dreher, who has two top-20 finishes on the season, is back in the lineup this weekend and will be joined by senior Meredith Swanson, junior Suzie Lee and freshmen Sarah Schmelzel and Mary Fran Hillow. Junior Samantha Swinehart and freshman Chelsey Couch will also be playing as individuals.

Swanson is making her fifth appearance this season and has a stroke average of 78.30 in the four previous events. Lee, who is in the lineup for the sixth time this season, has a season average of 76.33. Schmelzel leads the team and ranks 26th in the conference with an average of 74.38 and has one top-20 finish. Hillow is coming off a strong collegiate debut as she tied for 18th as an individual at the UCF Challenge.

South Carolina finished eighth at the inaugural Darius Rucker Intercollegiate. The Gamecocks posted rounds of 303-301=604 (+36) at the rain-shortened event. Katie Burnett led the way with a sixth-place finish with rounds of 72-71=143, while Dreher was the next best finisher as she tied for 20th for her first career top-20 finish.

If the Gamecocks are to improve on their finish from a year ago, they will have to go through a field that will be just as challenging as last year’s, which was ranked the sixth best in the country by Golfweek. Of the 15 teams competing, 13 are ranked in the Golfstat Top 50, including defending Darius Rucker Intercollegiate and national champion Alabama. The field has a strong SEC flavor, as No. 8 Arkansas, No. 37 Auburn, No. 14 Georgia, No. 35 LSU, No. 29 Tennessee and No. 11 Vanderbilt join the Gamecocks and Crimson Tide. No. 3 North Carolina, No. 19 Virginia and No. 44 Wake Forest make up a strong ACC contingent, while No. 17 Arizona State, No. 42 Central Florida, Furman and TCU round out the field.

“We are very lucky. We’ve had a huge response from other teams wanting to get into our event,” Harris said. “It’s been very popular after just one year. Our idea was to have one of the best tournaments in women’s college golf in the country, if not the best, and we think that’s what it’s becoming. This is a good opportunity for us to play in a national championship-like field. It’s going to be a great experience for our team.”

The teams will be playing not only one of the most popular courses in the country but also one of the most challenging. The course, which was designed by nationally-renowned golf course architect Pete Dye, proved difficult to post low numbers during last year’s tournament, as only six rounds under par were recorded. The par-71 course will play 51 yards longer than last year with a 6,211-yard layout.

The Gamecocks will begin teeing off the first hole on Friday at 8:30 a.m. and will be paired with Tennessee and Wake Forest. Live scoring will be available through both Golf Gamebook and Golfstat.