MILTON, Ga. — Forgive Steve Desimone if his blood pressure was a bit high on Tuesday afternoon — his top-ranked California Golden Bears haven’t made him sweat a whole lot during their record-breaking season.
So, when his team sat 12 shots off the first-round lead at the turn, Desimone knew that he was going to have to rely on the Bears’ resilience they’ve shown in winning 11 tournament titles this season.
And, yet again, they didn’t disappoint. Behind Brandon Hagy’s brilliant final nine holes that featured four birdies, Cal rallied itself to a 3-under 277, seven shots back of Pac-12 rival Arizona State.
“I sure feel a lot better at the end of the round than I did in the middle of the round,” said Desimone. “I really give the guys credit. I am sure (the players) took a look at the scoreboard and saw us somewhere down at the bottom.
“The golf course is two different nines. Our goal was to try hold steady on the back nine. There are some birdies holes (on the front). We took advantage of those and played ourselves back into the tournament.”
Hagy got the Bears going in the right direction with a birdie bomb on par-3 3rd (his 12th hole), nailing a 30-footer to move into red figures on the day. He’d follow that with three consecutive birdies on Nos. 6-8, including driving the green on the par-4 7th to post a 4-under 66.
“Definitely had some butterflies on the first tee, (it’s the) national championship,” said Hagy. “I am most proud of the patience I had out there. I wasn’t making too many putts in the beginning but i was till hitting the ball well. I just kept my head down, kept going. I knew if I kept hitting good shots, I’d make a few putts. That definitely happened on the back nine.”
With digital scoreboards seemingly everywhere at the Capital City Club, Hagy knew that the Golden Bears needed to get something going.
“Kind of hard not to (look at leaderboard), with scoreboards all over the place,” said Hagy, who won the Alister Mackenzie Invitational in October. All of Cal’s starting five won during the 2012-13 season.
“It’s the first day. The afternoon round. You can’t really read too much into where we are at. It’s going to play tougher for us in the afternoon. The wind kicked up a little. I didn’t pay attention too much.”
Joel Stalter was the only other Golden Bear under par, using birdies at Nos. 5 and 7 to post a 1-under 69. Michael Kim, No. 1 in the Golfweek/Sagarin Rankings, fired a 2-over 72 while senior Max Homa had 16 pars in an even-par 70. Michael Weaver, the 2012 U.S. Amateur runner-up, had no birdies in a 4-over 74, which was Cal’s throwaway round of the day.
“At any point, with Brandon’s length, he can really get going,” said Desimone. “One of the hallmarks of this team all year, at any time, any of these five guys could get it going and take it deep. Today was Brandon’s turn. I wouldn’t be surprised to see somebody else step up tomorrow and do the same thing.”
Hagy knows that Cal has a gigantic bulls-eye on its collective back and every shot will be overanalyzed.
“All 29 teams want to take a crack at us. We talked about it last night, we just need to keep doing what we’ve been doing the whole year.”
• • •
POWER OUTAGE: Pre-tournament favorites UCLA, TCU and New Mexico were nowhere to be seen during the first round.
No. 4 in the Golfweek/Sagarin Rankings, UCLA finished the day 24th at 9 over. Three players, Pedro Figueirdo, Pontus Widegren and Anton Arboleda, had the teams best rounds of the day — 2-over 72.
The Lobos finished at 12-over 292, which is T-27 in a field of 30. James Erkenbeck, the team’s No. 1 player this week, shot 5-over 75 on Tuesday. New Mexico is No. 5 in the Golfweek Rankings. All four college experts picked the Lobos to advance to the Elite 8.
In maybe the biggest surprise of the day, TCU (ranked No. 7 by Golfweek) is last in the field at 14 over. Daniel Jennevret shot the team’s low score of the day at 2-over 72. Julien Brun, a final four pick for the Haskins Award, finished his first round at 4 over.
These teams are going to have to go low, low, low if they want a decent shot of advancing to the Elite 8.
• • •
IN A FLASH: It didn’t look good early on for Mid-American Conference champion Kent State. The five Golden Flashes were 9 over through the first four holes. But they bounced back and at the turn were 1 over. They got it to even par early on the back nine before finishing the opening round at 2 over.
Nicholas Scott, playing in the No. 5 spot, led the team with a 2-under 68. He had it at 4 under, but made bogeys at Nos. 16-17. Corey Conners and Kevin Miller came in with 1-over 71s, while Taylor Pendrith was the fourth counter with a roller-coaster 2-over 72 that included two birdies, two bogeys and a double bogey.
“I’ve said all year this team is the toughest, mentally toughest, team I think I’ve ever coached,” said veteran Ken State coach Herb Page. “They showed that today. They never folded their tent. They hung in there and battled back. I’m proud of them for that.”
And of Conners’ 1-over 71, Page was most impressed.
“He probably had his “C” game out there today,” Page said. “There were times he looked like a 12-handicapper. But he kept hanging in there and turned what could have been a disaster of a round into a decent round. I told him afterwards considering everything, I thought it was the best round he’s played at Kent State.”
• • •
WHAT’S UP, ACE?!: LSU’s Zach Wright had the tournament’s first hole-in-one, acing the 220-yard, 15th hole.
“I saw it land on the front side of the green and it just rolled in,” said Wright. “It was great as I was able to see it go in. That was my third hole-in-one, two in tournaments and one just out playing. My most recent one was during the fall semester just out playing on my home course, so it was great to do this in such a big event.”
— Ron Balicki and Cassie Stein contributed to this report