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Darton golf full of youth, high expectations

Darton freshman Taylor Martin is ready for the golf season to begin today when Darton tees off int he Coastal Georgia Men's Fall Invitational.

Darton freshman Taylor Martin is ready for the golf season to begin today when Darton tees off int he Coastal Georgia Men's Fall Invitational.

ALBANY — Darton golf coach Bill Jones III admits it was tough to lose star golfer Joe Sakulpolphaisan to graduation.

His freshman class this fall is making it a little easier.

The Cavs have six freshmen on their nine-man roster this season, which begins today at the Coastal Georgia Men’s Fall Invitational at St. Simons Island. And four of those freshmen will be competing in the two-day, 54-hole tournament — including new Darton No. 1 golfer Taylor Martin.

“It doesn’t really seem like we are freshmen,” Martin said. “It seems like we have known each other for a while now.”

They certainly haven’t played like freshmen through the team’s 11 qualifiers, knocking two sophomores — Robert Robertson and Neil Graham — out of the starting lineup and dropping Darton’s third sophomore, Nick Green, all the way to No. 4.

“I think us sophomores kind of relaxed a little bit, thinking we would get our spots just handed to us. And then these freshmen came out with something to prove, and they proved it really quick,” Green said. “Last year we looked like lost little kids out here as freshmen. We didn’t know what to do compared to these freshmen. These freshmen are amazing. I can’t get over the fact how good they are already.”

Jones and Dale Dover, the director of golf operations at Darton, have a knack for bringing talented players to Albany. They had several on last year’s team, which finished fifth in the NJCAA national tournament.

None of those players were as talented as Sakulpolphaisan, who Jones said has one of the biggest success stories in the history of Darton athletics. Sakulpolphaisan, a native of Thailand, was a two-time All-American and became the No. 1-ranked junior golfer in the nation during his sophomore season.

Just before last year’s national tournament, Sakulpolphaisan committed to Mississippi State, where he recently led the Bulldogs to a second-place finish in their season-opening tournament, their best finish in three years.

“Joe was an invaluable asset that we lost,” Jones said. “He was a great kid, a great student and actually had our second-best GPA last year on the team. It didn’t just come down to his stroke average. He is a kid we would have loved to have around for 10 years if possible. We have to find two or three people to replace that one. He was just that good.”

The Cavs also lost All-American honorable mention Shad Tuten, who is now playing at Armstrong Atlantic State.

Now Jones has been handed a group of freshmen to continue Darton’s incredible success at the junior college level, which includes 11 straight trips to the national tournament and three straight national titles from 2005-07.

But that large freshman class is exactly what Jones wanted.

“This year I was hoping to mix it up a lot with different lineups and different people playing one through five,” Jones said. “It could push some of the sophomores out of the lineup and put a little kick in their tails to get them working harder or else they aren’t playing.”

That’s exactly what Martin, a Braselton native, did, firing four sub-par rounds and holding a 15-20 shot lead on everybody else on the team after 11 rounds of qualifying.

“He has one of those slightly unorthodox looking swings,” Jones said about Martin. “You wouldn’t say he has the prettiest swings, but those are the types of players you love. He just knows how to get it in the hole.”

Martin will be followed in the lineup, respectively, by freshman TaeHyung Kim (South Korea), freshman Madison Turner (Canton), Green (Covington) and Parks Brown (Gainesville).

“I think they can continue (Darton’s streak of national championship appearances) or even do better,” Jones said. “We have had single players in the last couple of years make a run at nationals, but we really haven’t had the whole team ready and consistent enough. That was my goal this year to bring in enough good, young players — maybe even sacrifice a little bit of our success early in the year for player development later in the year.”