OOLTEWAH, Tenn. – Randy Lein guided Arizona State to the 1996 NCAA Championship at The Honors Course. He started the season believing that this year’s Sun Devils squad had the talent to hoist another national title here. The Sun Devils underperformed much of the year but played well enough Tuesday to take the lead after the morning wave of the NCAA Championship’s first round.
Arizona State, with three All-Americans in its starting five, shot 2-under 286. The Sun Devils are No. 16 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings, and beat one of the season’s best fields in the fall at Olympia Fields.
“Since the fall, (Lein’s) been saying we have something good going on here,” said junior Jesper Kennegard, who shot 4-under 68 for the individual lead. “He’s been saying that a lot to us. We’re kind of making fun of it now.”
Arizona State’s spring had few highlights. The Sun Devils did not finish better than third in the spring and had only three top-5s in eight spring events. The only excitement may have been the late rally that was necessary just to make it to the NCAA Championship.
Kent State and North Florida shot 292 Tuesday, the second-best scores of the morning wave. The top 15 seeds played in the afternoon.
San Diego’s Alex Ching, Duke’s Wes Roach and Baylor’s Ryan O’Rear are tied for second at 69.
Ching was the 36-hole co-leader at last year’s NCAA Championship before finishing T-13. Roach, of nearby Knoxville, Tenn., played The Honors Course in the 2009 Tennessee Amateur, making him one of just a handful of competitors to have played a tournament round at Pete Dye’s creation just north of Chattanooga.
“I feel like I had a step up on most guys out here,” said Roach, who tied for third at last year’s state amateur.
O’Rear led a surprising Baylor team that, much like Arizona State, barely sneaked into the NCAAs. Baylor beat Georgia in a playoff at the South Central Regional to earn a spot at The Honors Course.
Arizona State’s Lein has said throughout the year that his talented team performs its best when met with a challenge. The Sun Devils had to rally on the final nine to advance out of regionals without a shot to spare. They’ve shot themselves out of contention with poor opening rounds, only to play their best in the final round when it’s already too late.
“For us, to be low in the morning is a good start for us, because we have not been doing that this spring,” Lein said. “Then we’ll come back and shoot the low round of the tournament, but we’ve given up so much, you’re trying just to finish.
“It’s too competitive. You just can’t do that.”
Kennegard, No. 17 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings, won at Southern Highlands this year, as well as last year’s West Regional. He tied for ninth at last year’s NCAA Championship.
On Tuesday, Kennegard made a 20-foot eagle putt on the par-5 17th to go 5 under par after eight holes. He was 6 under par after making a 15-foot birdie putt on the par-3 third hole, his 12th of the day.
Kennegard bogeyed three of his next four holes, including wayward drives that led to missed greens on Nos. 4 and 7. He was pin-high in two shots on the par-5 sixth hole but flubbed his chip and made bogey.
Kennegard had to make a 10-foot bogey putt on No. 7. He laid up out of the rough to about 75 yards, but hit his third shot into a greenside bunker.
Kennegard rebounded well, making an 8-foot putt to avoid three-putting the par-3 eighth hole, and making a 15-foot birdie putt on No. 9.