MILTON, Ga. –– Arkansas freshman Nicolas Echavarria had cracked the starting lineup just twice this spring. He didn’t compete in the SEC Championship. And he was last on the team in scoring average (75.5), failing to break 70 in 28 rounds entering the week.
But when it came time for Razorbacks head coach Brad McMakin to pick his five guys for the NCAA Championship, Echavarria got the nod for the final spot.
“Nicolas is a gamer; one of the top juniors in country and I felt like he’d handle the pressure better,” McMakin said of Echavarria, who twice made it to the semifinals of the U.S. Junior Amateur and also finished third at the Junior World Championship as a junior.
“He’s played worldwide and has had success on a high level. I felt like his experience in the bigger tournaments would go a little farther with our team.”
And after two rounds of stroke play at the Capital City Club’s Crabapple course, it’s looking like a smart decision.
Echavarria turned in a 6-under 64 on Wednesday, easily the best round of his young college career. He ended his round in solo second at 6 under, three shots behind Arizona State freshman Jon Rahm, who teed off in the afternoon.
“My game is great right now; couldn’t feel better,” said Echavarria, who registered six birdies and no bogeys. He missed just one green in regulation, too.
“It’s always good to get into the lineup, especially with the strong team that we have,” he added.
Echavarria started in every fall tournament for the Razorbacks, but had just one top 10 in five events. He made some swing changes during the winter, tightening up his swing.
“He was a little long and loose, so (we were) just trying to get his misses a little tighter,” McMakin said. “He’s using his lower body more. He’s been playing well ever since.”
It took Echavarria some time to get used to his new swing, but his spring results were much better, even though he started just once before regionals and made three individual appearances. He had four top 20s in five regular-season events during the spring, including a T-8 showing at the Aggie Invitational.
The only problem was that Echavarria was still struggling with his putting. McMakin then left Echavarria off Arkansas’ SEC Championship lineup.
“I knew I needed to get better after missing conference,” Echavarria said. “I worked hard and things are going the right way.”
That hard work alludes to the time he spent with McMakin on the greens prior to regionals. He also switched putters. His improvement with his putting helped Echavarria finish T-14 at the NCAA Fayetteville Regional, and ultimately convinced McMakin to put him in the lineup for the team’s season finale.
“If you can get some confidence in your putter, I’ve seen a lot of guys make a lot of putts and he just got it rolling,” said McMakin, who has walked with Echavarria every round since regionals.
“He helped me a lot in making the right decisions,” Echavarria added. “I’m just a freshman; I’m still learning.”
He is just a freshman, but Echavarria is also leading the Razorbacks at the NCAA Championship. Arkansas was T-6 after the morning rounds Wednesday, but only senior Sebastian Cappelen (3-under 137) joins Echavarria at under par through two rounds.
The NCAA Championship wasn’t so kind to Echavarria’s older brother, Andres, who finished T-113 and T-34 in two national-championship starts with Florida. His other brother, Miguel, who is a senior at Michigan, has never played in an NCAA Championship.
Things have gone differently for the youngest Echavarria brother so far this week. He’s playing like a veteran, which is what McMakin was counting on when he called on the freshman to complete his lineup.
But if Echavarria can keep up this kind of play, well, it will make McMakin’s decision look even more brilliant.