PAWLEYS ISLAND, S.C. – Talk about an auspicious debut: Campbell freshman Andy Gai shot 29 on the back nine Sunday for an opening 8-under 64 at the Golfweek Program Challenge. Said Camels assistant coach Tim Crooks: “It’s a dream start for any coach.”
Heck, or for any player. Gai was a solid junior out of Westport, Conn., having won four times on the International Junior Golf Tour. He arrived at Campbell with modest expectations. He wanted to make an impact on a team that won once last season. And, well, he wanted to straighten out a driver that typically went left. Two weeks on campus seemingly fixed that, and he shot 68-69 the last two rounds of team qualifying for the Program Challenge.
“I knew I could compete,” Gai said, “but I wasn’t playing like this.”
After turning in 2-under 35 Sunday, Gai birdied the 10th hole before reeling off five straight birdies on Nos. 12-16 to move to 8 under for the day. He missed the last two greens, but made a tidy up-and-down on the last – pitching the ball into a slope and sinking a 15-footer – to post 64. He leads the individual race by two shots over Jacksonville State’s Tomasz Anderson, another freshman making his college debut.
“I loved it,” Gai said, smiling. “I knew that everyone was watching me.”
Gai’s emergence is a strong sign for Campbell, which had four top-5 finishes last season but will be without its leading scorer, Matt Moot, who graduated in the spring. “We knew he had a lot of confidence,” Crooks said of Gai. “Some people are just born that way. It was an awesome round.”
But Gai was far from the only player who went low Sunday at True Blue. Anderson, of Herfordshire, England, eagled his last hole to shoot 66. Central Arkansas’ Pep Angles bogeyed the last and shot 67.
Thirty-one players shot par or better in the opening round, so the team leaderboard is filled with red numbers. At 12-under 276, Jacksonville State has an early one-stroke lead over Campbell. Central Arkansas and South Florida are two strokes behind.
“We’ve got a really good team,” Anderson said of Jacksonville State, the reigning Ohio Valley Conference champions. “I think we’re quite underrated. But that’s a good thing, flying under the radar.”
East Carolina was far from an underdog on the women’s side. The Pirates, who finished last season No. 50 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings, were 5 under in their last eight holes, shot 1-under 283 and took an eight-stroke lead over James Madison after the first round at Caledonia Golf and Fish Club.
“It just snowballed the right way for us on the back nine,” said East Carolina coach Kevin Williams. “I thought the course was there for the taking.”
Co-leader Julia Strandberg mixed six birdies with three birdies, playing the last seven holes in 5 under to pace East Carolina with a 3-under 69 to tie Lejan Lewthwaite of Texas State.
“(Strandberg) has been playing good leading up to this and was very relaxed out there,” Williams said.
Part of the allure of the Golfweek Program Challenge is that it identifies not only the men’s and women’s team champion, but the program winner as well – the school with the lowest cumulative score.
Through the opening round, here is how the teams stand in the program division:
• 1. East Carolina: -8
• 2. Jacksonville State: -3
• 3. Campbell: -3
• 4. South Florida: +4
• 5. Texas State: +10
• 6. Central Arkansas: +12
• 7. James Madison: +14
• 8. UNCW: +15
• 9. Troy: +17
• 10. UMKC: +25
• 11. Northern Iowa: +27
• 12. Boston College: +28