MacLean motors ahead at Conference Challenge

Xavier sophomore Sebastian MacLean shot 4-under 68 Sunday and is tied for the lead at Golfweek's Conference Challenge.

Xavier sophomore Sebastian MacLean shot 4-under 68 Sunday and is tied for the lead at Golfweek's Conference Challenge.

Men's Rankings »

RankNameSchoolRating
1Joey GarberGeorgia  68.65 
2Robby SheltonAlabama  68.65 
3Patrick RodgersStanford  68.71 
4Ollie SchniederjansGA Tech  68.85 
5Cameron WilsonStanford  69.10 

Men's Team Rankings »

RankNameRatingEvents
1Alabama 68.97 
2Georgia Tech 69.68 
3Georgia 69.68 
4Oklahoma State 69.77  10 
5California 69.86  11 

RIVERSIDE, Iowa – Through 18 holes of Golfweek’s Conference Challenge, there are touches of confusion and contradiction. However, we’re pretty sure about saying at least this: Xavier’s Sebastian MacLean is currently the only person to have his name on course records in both Bolivia and Iowa.

On a Blue Top Ridge course that played a bit easier than its Saturday practice round, MacLean began his 2009-10 college golf season with an opening-nine 30 (he started on the back nine) that included five birdies, a pitch-in eagle, an improbable up-and-down from the fescue on No. 18 and a shirt full of sand.

Four bogeys on his final nine dropped MacLean to 4-under 68, but it was still good enough to join Baylor’s Payne Gniewek (KNEE-wick) and Middle Tennessee State’s Jason Millard at the top of the individual leaderboard after Round 1 and claim a share of the competitive course record at this two-year-old Eastern Iowa oasis.

“It was kind of a mix of emotions,” said MacLean, a sophomore from Bolivia, who last season after a solid spring, finished 124th in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings.

Emotions? Try a mix of opinions. Bryan Haas, Blue Top Ridge’s director of golf, said Sunday morning during MacLean’s string of birdies from holes 11 to 15 that he had “taken it easy” on the field, placing pins in positions he figured were there for taking. So he wasn’t necessarily shocked to see MacLean go low early.

Gniewek, a junior transfer from Michigan State playing in his first event for the Bears this week, laughed when he heard that.

“I didn’t think they were that easy,” said Gniewek, who along with sophomore Lorenzo Scotto’s 3-under 69 helped Baylor to a five-shot lead over Middle Tennessee State at 8-under 280.

“I thought the pins were pretty tough today, a lot of them just over ridges.”

Which brings us to Millard, the MTSU junior who two years ago led the Blue Raiders to the final round of the NCAA Championship and their best performance in school history.

“The pins weren’t that bad,” said Millard, a late string of three consecutive birdies from holes 15-17 helping him to a share of that course record set by Iowa’s Vince India during the final round of the recent Iowa Open.

Any guesses then as to how Gniewek and Millard each described the Sunday wind (which Saturday showed more strength and seemed to blow in from the north)?

Gniewek: “Wind direction was the same pretty much. It just wasn’t as windy.”

Millard: “The wind is totally opposite. I don’t know about easier, but it’s completely opposite of yesterday.”

So as we wait to find out which courses those co-leaders are playing, let’s get back to MacLean, who through 12 holes Sunday seemed like he was going to erase everyone else from the picture anyway.

After a lot of talk Saturday about the long and difficult back nine, at least a couple people thought there was a mistake in the live scoring after seeing MacLean at 5 under through the first six holes. (At least Gniewek and Millard both agreed that posting 30 on the back nine was a little outrageous.)

Truth was, MacLean just hadn’t seen a birdie putt longer than 12 feet during that stretch, and he made most of them.

Then, after hitting his second shot underneath the lip of a bunker and making bogey at the 665-yard par-5 16th (the longest hole in Iowa), MacLean pitched in for eagle from about 30 yards on the 360-yard par-14 17th to get to 6 under.

On the par-4 18th, MacLean lost his drive right, again near the lip of a fairway bunker. He failed to make good contact, and instead seemed to shovel two bucketfulls of sand down his own shirt, sending his ball into the fescue about 50 yards right. He spent the next 15 minutes trying to clean himself off, while also hitting a spectacular third shot to 12 feet to get up-and-down for par.

“I think I still have some (sand) in my shirt,” said MacLean, who spent a good chunk of the summer back home at Bolivia, where he worked hard on his putting and course management, both weaknesses he identified from his freshman year. Last season, after a terrible fall, MacLean finished the spring with seven-consecutive top 10s and a victory. He was in contention down the stretch four times.

“I had never been taught course management,” said MacLean. So this summer, he managed to break course records at the only two courses in his hometown of Santa Cruz, Las Palmas Country Club (64) and Mapaizo Golf Club (65).

“He’s the real deal,” said Xavier coach Doug Steiner, whose team currently sits in fifth place, 10 shots back of Baylor. “I think sky’s the limit on him, as long as he keeps applying himseld.”

What MacLean learned Sunday was how to limit the affects of his adrenaline, which kicked in overdrive on the par-5 third hole, his 12th of the day.

After lipping out a 4-footer for birdie on No. 10, he hit his approach on No. 11 to the same kick-in distance and made birdie to get to 7 under through 12 holes. He hit a great drive on the third tee, and then a layup shot that trickled into the left rough about 40 yards from the pin.

Watching his third shot, you would have thought he caught a flier lie, as the ball soared over the elevated green, leaving a tough flop shot. Lots of Spanish words ensued.

“It was a good lie, I just hit it too hard. Adrenaline,” said MacLean. He made bogey and more or less stalled, playing his final six holes in 2 over.

“Once I was 7 under through 12, I got ahead of myself,” said MacLean. “But I would say it’s a good start, especially feeling all those situations, I think it will help me in the upcoming rounds.”

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