RIVERSIDE, Iowa – Florida State erased a four-shot Iowa lead early in the final round of Golfweek’s Conference Challenge. In the end, the Seminoles erased a season full of bad memories with a convincing 8-shot victory Tuesday at Blue Top Ridge.
“It’s been a whole year,” said Florida State Coach Trey Jones, shaking his head and smiling, his team finishing with a final-round 7-under 281, the best round of the day by four shots. “We went 0-for-10 last year… but they really impressed me today. We won as a team, and each one of them did some things that put us in that position.”
Second-round leader Iowa, the Seminoles’ only real challenger on yet another perfect Eastern Iowa day, shot its worst round of the tournament (293) to finish second. Coastal Carolina (290) placed third.
“It’s just nice to win so that way you can go into some tournaments and be like, OK, we can do this,” said Drew Kittleson, who rode a stretch of three consecutive back-nine birdies to finish at 4-under 68 and tie for medalist honors with Iowa junior Brad Hopfinger.
It was the first college victory for both Hopfinger and Kittleson, neither of them faltering down the stretch.
Both players made birdies on No. 17 and scrambling pars on 18 to stay on the top of the leaderboard. Kittleson, who last year finished runner-up in the U.S. Amateur and played in the Masters, had the best shot to win on 18, but caught a flier lie from the right rough and sent his 8-iron over the green and into a bunker. After his string of birdies from Nos. 12-15, Kittleson also lipped out a 4 footer for birdie on the long par-5 16th.
“I’m counting this,” said Hopfinger, who a day earlier set the course record at Blue Top Ridge with a 5-under 67. Hopfinger sent his drive on 18 into the trees right and was forced to pitch out into the fairway, but got up-and-down from 65 yards for par.
“I was pretty nervous, but I did good job keeping them under control,” said Hopfinger, who shot 70. “It a lot of fun. That’s really what it’s all about.”
Hopfinger and Kittleson finished at 9-under 207, two shots ahead of Vanderbilt’s Hudson Johnson and Middle Tennessee State’s Jason Millard.
Also finishing high on the leaderboard was Florida State’s Seath Lauer and Doug Letson, both of whom finished tied for 9th at 1-under 215. Lauer, a senior, played his final five holes in 3 under to shoot a final-round even-par 72.
“I think we just played the last five holes really well as a team,” said Lauer, a senior. “But Doug, he’s your story of the tournament.”
A true freshman playing in his first event, Letson started his college career off with a first-round 72 that included a hole-out eagle that he backed into the hole on the 379-yard par-4 15th.
“Pretty much the highlight of my tournament,” said Letson, jokingly, with three of his teammates listening.
If Letson already seems comfortable, part of the reason may be that he’s already been in college a few months. Letson decided to enroll in Florida State’s summer session to get better accustomed to college before the season started, following in the footsteps of Brooks Koepka, last year’s ACC Freshman of the Year who shot a bad qualifying round and didn’t even make the trip to Iowa this week.
“(Letson’s) going to be a special player for us,” said Jones. “He’s worked extremely hard and already he’s not the same player that we recruited.”
Wesley Graham, at one time the top player in the Golfweek/Titleist Junior Rankings, hasn’t looked like the player Jones recruited since he enrolled at Florida State last year, finishing his freshman season with a scoring average over 77.
Despite a double bogey on the 18th, Graham closed with 71, ending the tournament in a tie for 26th.
“It’s about time,” said Graham.
Florida State finished last year No. 29 in the Golfweek/Sagarin Rankings but failed to advance out the NCAA Southeast Regional by seven shots. Sneaking in the fifth and final qualifying spot that week? Iowa, which ended up finishing 17th at the NCAA Championship to complete its best season in a decade.
Tuesday wasn’t the Hawkeyes’ best day. Vince India, who recently shot a final-round 68 to win the Iowa Open at Blue Top Ridge, followed a second-round 71 with a 75. Ryan Marks followed a 70 with an 81, and Barret Kelpin went from 70 to 74.
“We were a little aggressive today,” said coach Mark Hankins, in his third year at Iowa after winning two Big 10 titles at Michigan State. “I feel like we made some mistakes. I think if we had a little more confidence in ourselves and kind of been a little more patient we would have been in there to win it.
“They’ve all been in this situation before,” Hankins said. “So we’re a little disappointed that we didn’t do a better job today.”