USC Upstate earns first postseason bid in school history thanks to National Golf Invitational

To say Todd Lawton was caught off guard would be saying it lightly.

The women’s golf coach at USC Upstate was sitting in an all-staff meeting the day after receiving an invite to the National Golf Invitational. He had spoken to his sports administrator about it, who then took the conversation to the athletic director, Matthew Martin.

In the middle of the meeting, Martin called out Lawton and said, “Congratulations to coach Lawton and women’s golf, they got their first postseason invite and are heading to Arizona here in about two days.”

“I looked over at my administrator, and he just gave me a thumbs up,” Lawton said. “It’s better than announcing women’s golf got an invite but is not going.”

USC Upstate met the criteria to be selected for NCAA Regionals but wasn’t. That’s when the team was invited to the second edition of the Women’s Golf Invitational, which begins Friday at Ak-Chin Southern Dunes in Maricopa, Arizona. The Spartans are one of 10 teams in the women’s field, but more importantly, they’re making their first postseason appearance in school history, and that wouldn’t have happened if not for the NGI.

Think of the NGI as the NIT of collegiate golf.

In May 2022, the NCAA announced it would allow schools to play in one season-ending event. By July 2022, the inaugural National Golf Invitational was created in a partnership between Golfweek and Ak-Chin Southern Dunes, with Golfweek’s Lance Ringler serving as the Invitational’s tournament director.

In 2024, the field will play 54 holes of stroke play over three days to determine the second NGI champion. Penn State won the inaugural competition last spring. There are two returning teams from the 2023 field, Mercer and Santa Clara, with eight newcomers hoping for a chance to claim a postseason title.

For USC Upstate, it’s hoping to claim postseason glory in its first appearance.

“For it to be a national championship postseason backup to the NCAA, it’s just huge,” Lawton said. “Our players can be rewarded for staying at a mid-major and working their tails off.”

Two years ago, USC Upstate lost to Campbell on the fourth playoff hole of the conference championship to miss out on a national’s bid. It’s likely the Spartans would’ve participated in the NGI that season, but it hadn’t been created yet.

Fast forward two years and USC Upstate again placed second at its conference tournament, falling to Charleston Southern in match play. This time, the NGI was waiting, and it’s set to be a historic tournament for the Spartans.

USC Upstate had two victories this season and a 90-31-0 overall record. It placed second in the Big South Conference tournament in stroke play before the runner-up finish in match play. In addition to the two victories, USC Upstate had nine top-five finishes.

At the NGI, the Spartans have a chance to add a feather in their cap on one of the best seasons in school history.

“My wife is a school teacher, and she has been used to me being done May 1,” Lawton said. “She doesn’t know how to take it with me being gone at practices and such. She asked whether she was going to have to get used to it. I said I sure hope we have to get used to it.”

Story originally appeared on GolfWeek