By Caleb Barron
Big 12 Campus Correspondent
Missouri men's head golf coach Mark Leroux couldn't fathom what the overseas recruiter was trying to sell. As far as understatements go, "Hey, we got this kid" was about as big as it gets. The No. 1 amateur player in Spain wanted to come play in the United States, and his recruitment would be exceptionally simple. It took one offer, sight unseen, to bring Emilio Cuartero to Columbia, Mo. The assimilation process, however, would not be as smooth.
Leroux needed only one look at Cuartero's resume to know the Spaniard was a special talent. At 16 years of age, Cuartero became the second youngest player, trailing only Sergio Garcia, to win the prestigious British Boys Championship. He had competed on the Spanish national team. He was ready for Division I golf, but first, he had to learn to speak the language.
A native of Lleida, Spain (one of the oldest cities in the Catalan Central Depression), Cuartero's background made him unique from the rest of his teammates at Missouri. In Spanish golf, the individual takes a backseat to the team. While American players were competing for themselves during their formative years, Cuartero was playing a union-structured form of golf. And with two Jacques Léglise Trophies to his name, he had experienced great success in Europe. However, Cuartero knew he wanted to further his education in the United States.
As Cuartero tells it, most of his friends in Spain have had to make a decision: either play golf or get a degree. In a Spanish golf culture that plays a larger quantity of tournaments than the U.S., players simply don't have time for both. Of the people he knows that have tried to do both, most have failed.
"40 percent of them will quit college because they want to play golf," Cuartero says. "The other 40 will start playing really bad because they don't have time to practice. Maybe 20 percent are doing both at the same time, but it is really tough."
Cuartero arrived in Columbia, Mo., to a rude awakening. His teammates were laughing, but he couldn't understand why. The language barrier was very real. Cuartero signed up for remedial English classes to catch up, but he had to start missing practices due to class availability only being in the afternoons. Even though he was on the team and competing, he wasn't a part of everything the team did because of time constraints. However, Cuartero proved himself a quick learner.
"There was a lot of compromise to get him at that level to where he is now a full-fledged member," Leroux says. "The change is night and day, and he did it really quick, too."
Language wouldn't be the only obstacle Cuartero would navigate during his freshman year. A few weeks before the start of the Spring season, Columbia was slammed with nearly 20 inches of snowfall, a new experience of massive proportions for the Spaniard. The mounds of white stuff halted practices, further setting back Cuartero's assimilation into the team.
Then the other shoe dropped. Cuartero's grandparents - whom he was very close with - both fell ill. His grandmother had a stroke but would live. His grandfather passed away. Cuartero was shaken.
"In Spain, they live in front of me," Cuartero says. "It's not like they live away, and I only see them for Christmas. No, I saw them every day. So it was really close and it was bad."
After such a rough start, no one would have blamed Cuartero if he would have quit and returned to Spain. He says he looked within himself and decided he wanted to be a strong person.
"I have a lot of experience with my friends; they come here and quit the first semester and go back home," Cuartero says. "They are doing nothing right now. And then you see the ones who stayed here. They went through the struggle and then they come back and it's, ‘Oh, you have your major now in the U.S. You have played golf away.' This is what I'm looking for."
Once the snow cleared and Cuartero refocused, he went on to have a tremendous freshman campaign, including two Top 10 finishes and starts in both the Big 12 Championship and the NCAA Southeast Regional. The season ended just a few shots shy of an appearance at the NCAA Championship.
"I would've liked for the team to have been there," senior Jace Long, who did qualify for a spot at the championship, says. "We were so close there to having all five guys go to Nationals."
Cuartero believes the team could get over the hump this season.
"I think we have the team," Cuartero says. "I think we can make it to Regionals and then from Regionals, who knows?"
A student of the mind, Cuartero says he learned from fellow Spaniard Rafael Nadal to be completely focused on the opportunity. Should Mizzou qualify for Nationals, he promises his concentration, his mind, will be on the task at hand. This focus on the mind is part of a Cuartero initiative to grow up as a player. He says becoming a more patient player is the key to his improvement.
"If I am one over and have five holes left, I say to myself, ‘Emilio, don't worry. Be positive, patient. You never know what is going to happen. I could make hole-in-one, eagle, eagle. You never know. It's golf,'" Cuartero says.
Golf is a fickle friend. One day the sport can treat you like a prince and the next a pauper. Cuartero admits he doesn't know if he'll play pro golf, but he plans on finding out over his final two seasons at Mizzou. And should the challenge take him elsewhere in life, he believes it will only make him a stronger, better person.