STARKVILLE — Ben Wood was in the midst of his best season at Mississippi State in 2014-15.
He won two tournaments in the fall and was preparing to carry that momentum to the spring and help the Bulldogs reach the postseason.
Then his mother, Robin, lost her battle to bile duct cancer, which attacks the liver, in January.
“It’s been really tough. I still deal with it today,” Wood said. “She was my biggest fan. She was very proud of me and my brother and sister. It was very different not seeing her at events and not having her call me after rounds and just tell me how proud she was of me.”
Wood saw his coaches and teammates rally behind him, which helped him to keep his game on track. The Bulldogs dedicated the rest of the season to her memory and wore liver cancer ribbons on their hats and placed them on their golf bags.
The rising senior will continue to play for his mother this season.
Along with the support group he had around him, Wood began reading “Unbeatable Mind” by former Navy SEAL officer Mark Divine. The book presents insights on “how to forge mental toughness, develop mental clarity, and cultivate an authentic warrior’s spirit.” It teaches breathing techniques and meditation.
The Florence, Alabama, native found the book to be a comfort before he stepped on the golf course ahead of each round.
“I would read that book before a round. I would get to the course a little bit earlier and start practicing my breathing techniques and meditating a little bit to kind of clear my mind and to just get me to a place of peace,” Wood said. “Not that I was battling my emotions really in the spring, but it really helped a lot with my golf.
“Having a really level mind out there is key, to not letting your emotions get involved in the golf course and make bad decisions.”
Last fall, Wood earned a one-shot victory at the Memphis Intercollegiate. He also had one of the best showings of his career en route to a victory at the Jerry Pate National Intercollegiate. Wood won tied the school record for lowest 54-hole total with 198. He also tied the second- and third-lowest rounds in school history with a 63 and a 64 at the event.
In the spring, Wood contended in two tournaments. He held a share of the lead on the final hole at the Middleburg Bank Intercollegiate in Williamsburg, Virginia. He recorded an eight on that final hole and finished sixth. Wood was tied for the lead after the first round of the MSU-hosted Old Waverly Collegiate Championship in West Point, but he stumbled on the last day and finished tied for 11th.
“You always learn from those things and build on that,” Wood said. “Every time you get in one of those situations it’s because you know you’re playing really well. They’re definitely learning experiences, either when you win or when you lose. How to handle that pressure when you win, and then when you lose, how to handle it in defeat.”
Wood will anchor a team that will try to rebound from a 14th-place finish in the Southeastern Conference tournament.
Last season, the Bulldogs featured a five-man lineup with redshirt freshmen Johnny Newnham and Taylor Grant, junior college transfer Tim Walker, sophomore Ben Follett-Smith, and Wood.
“It’s amazing what a difference a year makes. It can turn around pretty quickly,” said MSU golf coach Clay Homan, who begins his 13th year at the school this fall. “There’s some talent there. It’s just a matter of them being able to maximize their talent, being able to kind of mature a little bit.
“Golf is such a game of being able to control your emotions, consistently doing things the right way to where it becomes habit.”
The 2013-14 squad featured seniors Chad Ramey, Joe Sakulpolphaisan, Barrett Edens, and Axel Boasson. That group led the Bulldogs to back-to-back NCAA postseason appearances in 2013 and 2014.
Homan knew his team would have its growing pains last season, but he wanted Newnham, Grant, Walker, Follett-Smith, and then-sophomore Jackson Dick to get comfortable.
“They probably played two or three tournaments each a year before. They were lacking in experience,” Homan said. “They just had to get their feet wet. They had to get out there and get in the tournaments and figure out what it was like.”
Homan saw his players mature and begin to understand what it takes to compete in the SEC, which is part of the reason he has high expectations for this season.
“My expectations of those guys last year were fairly reasonable. The expectations are going to go up this year because I know they’ve had a year to come along,” said Homan, who lettered at MSU from 1991-95.
There will still be more to learn for the Bulldogs, but Wood is excited about the 2015-16 season.
“I think we’re going to have a really good year,” he said. “The guys definitely got a lot of experience playing their first SEC Championship and playing well this summer. We’re really excited about the fall.”
MSU will add junior college transfer Jacob Ross and freshmen Severin Soller, of Germany, and Rupert Kaminski, of South Africa, this season. Ross will have to sit out the fall, but he will be eligible to tee it up in the spring.
Wood and Dick played last week in the Southern Amateur Championship at Old Waverly. Wood finished under par, while Dick played well for three of the four rounds.
Wood hopes his play in the summer sets the stage for a solid senior season.
“You can really take your momentum from the summer and carry it over to the fall,” said Wood, who is taking classes this summer. “If you’re playing well, then it really helps your momentum. If you’re not playing as good in the summer, it’s a time to go through some swing changes and work on some stuff that you don’t really have the chance to work on in the fall because of how fast paced it is.”
Ben Wait is a sports writer for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @bcwait
Ben Wait reports on Mississippi State University sports for The Dispatch.