Nerves of Steel: Steelman dominates to clinch Tiger Invitational title

Missouri men’s golf’s Ross Steelman putts the ball Tuesday morning at the The Club at Old Hawthorne in Columbia. Steelman won the Tiger Invitational by four strokes.

Calum McAndrew

The putt he was faced with on the third hold of his final round was up a gentle slope, broke slightly from right to left and measured just under 15 feet.

That was the moment that Ross Steelman thought of when he reflected on his final round at the MU Tiger Invitational on Tuesday.

It was an early test for Steelman at The Club at Old Hawthorne, but a crucial one. His playing partner and co-leader, Kansas State’s Will Hopkins, had a putt for bogey from about half the distance. If Steelman missed and Hopkins holed, no damage would be done to Hopkins’ place atop the leaderboard — a spot he had held overnight.

As soon as Steelman hit the putt, the ball never looked anywhere other the cup. It dropped, Hopkins missed his shorter putt and just like that, Steelman had a two-shot lead. And he never gave it up.

The Rock Bridge grad went on to win his second collegiate title by shooting 16-under for three rounds, posting a bogey-free final-round 6-under 66 to seal the victory. He took the individual title by four strokes and led Missouri men’s golf to its first team title since September 2019.

“He was dead where he was on the green,” Tigers coach Mark Leroux said. “To two-putt from there was almost like a Harry Houdini move.”

Steelman’s approach at the 3rd went long of his target, coming to rest above the bowl where the hole was cut. At the green, Steelman circled the cup and surveyed his options in preparation, but it was clear that this was one he couldn’t get close.

With the pin tucked away in a corner and a severe left-to-right slope between his ball and the cup, he had to send the putt to the top of a slope in the fringe and hope it didn’t get stuck at the top or gather too much speed on the way down past the hole. It rolled about 12 feet past — an excellent effort under the circumstances — and he would go on to hole the return.

“Very few golfers could have ever two-putted from where he was,” Leroux said.

That was one of several giant moments on Steelman’s title-winning day.

As he approached the turn, he had been caught at the top of the leaderboard by Illinois State’s David Perkins. Hopkins had also just eagled the par-4 8th to get within one stroke.

In the middle of the fairway after his tee shot at the long par-5 9th, Steelman hit a towering, drawing 3 wood within 20 feet. It set into motion a run of near-flawless golf that would ultimately would win him the tournament.

He two-putted at the 9th for birdie and followed that with a birdie at the 10th. He dropped a 15-footer for birdie at the par-3 12th, and then a 20-footer for birdie the very next hole. He played that five-hole stretch in 4 under and pulled away from all his challengers, even as they kept making birdies of their own.

“That one on 13, I really thought to myself, ‘I’ve got a really good shot to do this here,’” Steelman said. “Kind of in the back of my mind, just keep the pedal down and it’ll probably turn out pretty well.”

And keep the pedal down he did.

He added two more birdies at 15 and 17, remaining aggressive on a pair of risk- reward holes instead of trying to protect his lead. It paid off. Steelman stepped onto the 18th tee with an unassailable four-shot lead.

“I’ve felt like it’s been coming for a while now,” Steelman said. “I’ve been playing really well and just haven’t quite gotten over the hump yet this season, but for a long time I’ve been looking at this week really wanting to put a good week together.”

Steelman wasn’t the only Tiger to put together a good week. As a team, Missouri put together its first winning week in 19 months.

The Tigers leapfrogged overnight leader Kansas State late in the day Tuesday thanks to a strong back nine from each of their four counting scorers. They finished the event 25-under, seven strokes ahead of the Wildcats, posting rounds of 9-under 279 in the first and final rounds and a 7-under 281 in the second.

Tommy Boone was Missouri’s next-best individual player. He finished 13th at 2-under par, following a pair of even-par 72s on Monday and a 2-under 70 on Tuesday.

Yu-Ta Tsai rallied after a double bogey at 15 with two back-to-back birdies, including a 60-foot curler for a birdie two on 16, to finish the week in a tie for 14th. He posted rounds of 74, 69 and 72 to finish 1-under.

Walker Kesterson was one of Missouri’s counting scores Tuesday, following a 1-under 71 that included five back-nine birdies. It followed Monday totals of 71 and 76 to finish tied for 24th at 2-over.

Rory Franssen’s final-round 3-over 75 was dropped and caused him to fall from tied for ninth into a tie for 21st on the final leaderboard. It came after a pair of 71s on Monday.

The four counting scorers for Missouri together played holes 10 through 18 on Tuesday in 10-under par, 12 strokes better than Kansas State.

But it was Steelman’s week, and with the Southeastern Conference championship coming up April 22-26, he wants another trophy.

“I was watching ‘The Last Dance’ when it came out with Michael Jordan, and he was talking about that his ideal of sport is that you’re trying to win every time,” Steelman said. “That’s my mindset, and that’s going to be our (Missouri’s) mindset collectively. Just trying to go in and whoop up on some guys in the SEC.”