QUINCY -- Alex McCulla's biggest fear was letting down his teammates.
So after turning in his scorecard and posting the second-best individual round in Monday's Class 2A Lincoln Sectional with a 73, the Quincy Notre Dame sophomore golfer headed directly to the putting green.
"I putted for a solid 10 or 15 minutes," McCulla said.
It was his short stroke that had seemingly let him down. McCulla missed a 2-foot birdie putt on No. 16 at the Lincoln Elks Club course, followed it by missing a 5-footer for birdie on the 17th and finished with a par on the par-5 18th.
"I was kind of mad," McCulla said. "I thought to myself, ‘If that ends up not getting the team to state, I'm going to feel really bad.'"
He never wanted to feel that again, which was the reason for the impromptu putting practice.
"After I worked that out, I went back and asked where things stood," McCulla said. "(QND teammate David Hutson) was like, ‘We're going to win by about 10.' That was a relief."
So was knowing the Raiders are headed back to the state tournament.
QND will tee it up Friday at the Weibring Golf Club in Normal with the hope of improving on last year's finish. The Raiders finished eighth with a two-day total of 638, while McCulla finished tied for 33rd at 156. Five of QND's six players were part of that team, and they have played all season with a return trip at the forefront of their thoughts.
"I think it definitely takes the pressure off," McCulla said. "The whole season, we played to prove something. Now, every time we go to a tournament, everyone knows what we're capable of and there's really nothing left to prove. You can always get better, but we've proven we're a good enough team to make it to state. That takes a lot of pressure off.
"Everyone's been kind of worried about appearing not as good as we expect to be. But every tournament, if one guy didn't play good, someone else did. We've always played well. We've taken a different top four scores almost every time. It hasn't been the same four all year. It's been everybody."
But it's always been the same golfer at the top. McCulla emerged as QND's undisputed No. 1 player the first week of the season, and by the time he shot was is believed the lowest round in school history with a 7-under 64 at the Monmouth-Roseville Invitational, he was viewed as a viable state title contender.
He welcomed that.
"The goal is to be the best," McCulla said. "For anyone trying to go play at the next level or beyond, the goal is to be the best. If you're not doing that, it'll drive you nuts. If you know you're capable of something and you're not doing it, it'll drive you nuts.
"I know I'm capable of making all the 6-footers I look at. If I start missing, I'm going to have to grind it out a little more and figure out what I'm doing. If I do that next time out, it'll drive me even more nuts."
That's when time on the putting green becomes necessary.
McCulla broke 70 in four straight tournaments, winning medalist honors three times and losing in a playoff for first place once. He was a collective 21-under par in those events. The string of birdie binges didn't last as he posted a 74 at the Galesburg Invitational and a 75 at the West Central Conference pre-tournament event.
"I've probably never putted that bad ever," McCulla said. "My dad was like, ‘When was the last time you went out on the putting green and putted for an hour or two and just grinded on your stroke?' I was like, ‘Yeah, it's been a while.' I guess I kind of stepped off. I was like, ‘I need to get my stuff together.'"
So to work he went.
"It ain't easy," McCulla said. "Everyone knows that. Anyone who has ever touched a golf club knows that. If you want to be the best and you're not doing anything about it, you have no shot. If you're not willing to put in the time, there's no point to it.
"If you're not willing to put in the time to practice to reach your goals, you're wasting your time."
At the same time, McCulla understands his devotion to his craft can't be a 24-7 endeavor.
Some advice from his father, Mike, that applies to his game also applies to his-off-the-course attitude, too.
"One thing my dad has always said is slow down," McCulla said. "Sometimes, you have to step away from the shot and collect yourself. Sometimes you have to step away from the game, too."
That's what last weekend's homecoming festivities so much fun and so invaluable.
McCulla and his teammates forgot about their title pursuit long enough to enjoy the dance and the rest of the night.
"But Sunday night in the hotel after our practice, we all knew we had to get a good night's sleep and be ready for sectionals," McCulla said. "It was time to turn it back on."
The same thing happens Friday when McCulla tees off at 10:09 a.m. with a state championship in his sights.
"if I hit my driver like I know I can and I hit my next shot like I know I can, I can birdie every hole," McCulla said. "That's the goal every time you play."