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Surging No. 14 Gators focus on defending 2023 SEC men’s golf title

GAINESVILLE — Florida golfer Jack Turner arrived to Mark Bostick Golf Course last Thursday at 7:30 a.m. ready to get jump on the postseason.

The fast-rising freshman from Orlando soon discovered he was playing catch-up.

“I was the third person here,” Turner told the Orlando Sentinel. “Last semester, I would have been the first.”

Teammates Ian Gilligan and Parker Bell were already hard at work.

The fear of falling behind has the Gators ahead of schedule entering this week’s SEC Championships in St. Simon’s Island, Ga., having won consecutive tournaments and 4 of 5 since a quiet fall.

A 2023-24 season expected to be a rebuild after UF swept the conference and national titles has instead come to epitomize coach JC Deacon’s vision for his program.

“The work ethic has been incredible,” Deacon told the Sentinel. “They’re all feeding off each other. It’s like little mini-competitions of who gets here first, who stays the latest and the culture is in a really special place right now.

“That means a lot to the guys.”

Turner, 19, has embraced the demands to evolve into one of the Gators’ top players, culminating with a third-place finish at the Calusa Cup April 9 in Naples. He will hold the third of five spots this week after he struggled to secure a place in the starting lineup.

“He’s obviously been a catalyst for this jump,” Deacon said.

Turner was a highly touted recruited who won the 2020 Florida 13-15 Junior Boys championship by 11 shots and later roomed with John Daly II at IJGA Bishops Gate golf academy in Howey-in-the-Hills.

Turner, like the Gators, started slowly in the fall and struggled to find a groove. Other than a victory at the Georgetown Intercollegiate, featuring sophomore stalwart Matt Kress’ first collegiate title, the Gators failed to contend during three other fall events.

“We didn’t have any experience, we were young and hadn’t really played at this level,” Deacon said. “We got our tails whipped in the fall.”

Rather than become discouraged, the Gators dug in.

Gilligan, a junior who transferred from Long Beach State, set the tone while inspiring his teammates.

“He kind of showed me in the first semester what hard work really is,” Turner said. “I followed in those footsteps and started working way harder than I ever had before. That’s sort of motivated a lot of the guys in this team.”

More options and tough decisions for Deacon were the byproducts.

Fifth-year senior John DuBois, a clutch performer for last season’s squad, and Ryan Hart, a junior who was the alternate at the 2023 SECs and NCAAs, are among several players now on the outside looking in.

Meanwhile, Turner and Bell, a sophomore from Tallahassee, ascended; Gilligan seized the No. 1 spot; and senior Tyler Wilkes returned to his 2022 form when he was a lineup fixture.

“This is the most depth I’ve ever had, and it’s not even close,” Deacon said. “It’s been a tough thing because a lot of guys are just missing out on opportunities, but it’s been a great thing for our team. It’s one of the reasons why we’ve gone like this year because they’ve just had to work at it and had to get better every day.

“They know if they didn’t have someone right there to take their spot.”

Kress, the sole holdover from last season’s championship-winning lineup, has remained rock solid and holds the No. 2 spot this week.

The 21-year-old from Saratoga, Calif., realized those outside the program expected the Gators to take a step back. Kress also knew what he saw each day at the course.

“I don’t know if you can really control when you can play your best golf the right time because that’s not really how sports work,” he said. “You can only control what you put into it. We have been putting in the right inputs for a long time and over the long run you’re going to see the right results.”

Favorable outcomes this week and beyond will require the Gators elevate their games.

Deacon’s 14th-ranked squad sits behind six SEC teams, No. 1 Auburn, No. 3 Vanderbilt, No. 5 Ole Miss, No. 7 Tennessee, No. 10 Alabama and No. 12 Arkansas.

Galleries and TV cameras also will be on hand as Florida pushes to defend its title.

“I’ve just tried to tell some of the guys who maybe don’t have the experience how it’s a lot different than other tournaments,” Kress said. “When the cameras come out and when people come out, it just gets a lot different. You’ve never made a 4-footer to advance your team to the SEC championship.

“When you get in that moment you need to tell yourself, ‘I’ve hit this shot 1,000 times and I’ve pulled it off 1,000 times, what’s one more?'”

The 2023 Gators, led by veterans Fred Biondi, Ricky Castillo and Yuxin Lin, were built for those moments. But Turner is confident he and his teammates will themselves be ready.

“We’re all great players here,” he said. “We might not have the notoriety of the three last year, but I know once we’re all done here, we’re going to. The guys we have in this team and the work we put in, we’re not afraid of anyone.

“You never know what’s going to happen.”

Edgar Thompson can be reached at egthompson@orlandosentinel.com