COLUMBIA, Mo. - From Spain to the plains of Mid-Missouri, Emilio Cuartero finds a home in the middle of America.
"When I landed, I thought it was just going to be cows, corn fields, wheat fields," the Spaniard recalls about his first trip to Columbia.
The Tigers host an NCAA regional starting this Thursday. No. 8 seed Missouri needs to finish in the top five to qualify for nationals. They will count on Cuartero, who owns the lowest three-round score of 205 (-11) at Old Hawtorne.
Missouri head coach Mark Leroux was surprised his program was able to pick up the No. 1 amateur golfer in Spain. Cuartero was also the second youngest British Boys champion ever-- second to only Sergio Garcia. A recruiter tipped off the Missouri coach and he could not believe who he was targeting.
"I looked at his record, looked at his rankings and said, 'you got to be kidding me'," Leroux said when describing the recruiting process..
But of course there was a catch.
"He is not a qualifier yet," the recruiting official told Leroux.
"My grades in school were really bad because I always wanted to play professional when I turned 18," Cuartero said.
"They assured me they would work with him, get him to be a qualifier," said Leroux. "We made contact with him, made him an offer and he accepted. He was not actually admitted to Mizzou the Friday before classes started in the fall of 2010."
Leroux was with Cuartero when he received the good news. They cried and hugged in the clubhouse of a scratch players tournament in Seattle. Days later, Cuartero joined his team in Columbia.
Yet the fresh-off-the-boat Spaniard did not know much English, so he had to take classes. He remembers having initial discomfort interacting with his new teammates.
"I was laughing like, 'haha' but I didn't really understand the joke," he remembers. "That was tough at the beginning.
"I think it was more of an embarrassment thing rather than a hinderance to him," Leroux said when addressing Cuartero's initial language barrier. "I communicated with him fine. I think he just needed to assure himself that he could do this."
Cuartero took language classes from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. every day. That was also the same time his team practiced. He said he only practiced with the team once a week on Fridays in his first semester.
He leaned heavily on Hunter Kraus, his roommate and his co-captain for this year's Mizzou team.
"When he had trouble talking to people and communicating and understanding things, I was kind of there to explain things and help him figure out what is going on," Kraus, a senior at Missouri, said.
"He (Kraus) is the reason I stayed here," Cuartero said. "He helped me so much. He took me to his house. Every time I had trouble with my English, he would help.
Cuartero's Catholic faith also grew. He said his family in Spain did not to church. But the two rommates made a habit of going to service.
"He got me to believe," he said.
With faith, friends and the support of his family, Cuartero aimed even higher. The Spanish recruit who narrowly qualified at Mizzou became a scholar athlete. He is a two-time conference all-academic golfer. He also balanced grades with the greens, finishing in the top ten this season.
"I had friends back home [and] they said, 'you are not going to make it. Just stop it. C'mon. You don't need to take those long tests--these five hour tests--the SAT or the TOEFl (Test Of English as a Foreign Language),'" he recalls." I'm like, 'I want to be there. I want to stay here like everybody else. I want to do something different."
"Just proving people wrong is fun. 'you're wrong bro.' It's fun"
Now there is just one goal left: a national championship.
"It would be a great thing for not only the school, but for me told be able to hold the pressure on you. [It confirms] that you can take that next step forward."