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Top team: Oklahoma State (16-under 272)
Top individual: Jordan Niebrugge, Oklahoma State (7-under 65)
In position: 2. Missouri (281); 3. Virginia (285); 4. Arkansas (288); 5. LSU (289)
Chasing: T-6. Arizona State, Iowa (291); 9. Iowa State (293)
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Home, sweet home
When Missouri was awarded a spot in an NCAA regional May 5, it kicked off Groundhog Day for head coach Mark Leroux. The Tigers – hosting a regional at Old Hawthorne Club, their own backyard – suddenly had a potentially intriguing storyline. If they can finish in the top five after 54 holes at home, they’ll advance to the NCAA finals for the first time since 2005.
So, Coach, does that amount to more pressure or a comfortable feeling of familiarity?
“We talked about that as a team,” Leroux said Thursday after his Tigers posted 7-under 281 to open play. “Most of the pressure has been from the media because it’s the same question over and over again.”
Leroux has fielded them patiently while letting his team concentrate on playing. Missouri, a No. 8 seed, trails only top-seeded Oklahoma State, which posted 16-under 272 on a day when the entire field was called in briefly for rain and lightning, then a gusty wind greeted players’ return to the course.
If Missouri is feeling the stress, it’s not showing it – especially not senior Hunter Kraus, whose 4-under 68 was the lowest Missouri score and the third-lowest in the field. Kraus is rebounding from a breakthrough season a year ago. His senior season has been bumpy, but Kraus has maintained a life outside golf. A chemistry major, Kraus has career aspirations of being a physician. He finished his last final before regionals began, and also has plans laid out for an internship with a university Christian organization.
“Everything is kind of lined up for him,” Leroux said. “The stressers that are on top of golf have been eliminated.”
Kraus sets a good example for the rest of his team. As Leroux says of this week, “It’s a marathon. Three laps, and we just did one.”
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Jordan Niebrugge was made for days like this. The Oklahoma State player, who arrived in Stillwater, Okla., by way of Mequon, Wisc., excels in cold and wind.
Niebrugge led the field with a 7-under 65 at Old Hawthorne. He hit 17 greens, got up and down for par on the only green he missed (No. 12) and didn’t make a bogey all day.
“That’s where those birdies came from,” Niebrugge said of his strong iron play.
Niebrugge holed a 40-footer for birdie at No. 4, but the rest came from inside 6 feet. Even after he was hauled off the course for lightning with the rest of the field (Niebrugge was on No. 14) he returned to birdie two of his final four holes.
The word of the day? Comfort, which is a good feeling to have in the postseason.
“They’re bent greens, and it’s nice to play on bent greens again,” Niebrugge said. “The greens are pure so you can make a lot of putts out here. You can kind of be aggressive with it.”
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Niebrugge only outpaced teammate Talor Gooch by two shots. Oklahoma State also counted two rounds of 70, including one from Wyndham Clark. The redshirt freshman has had eight top 10s in eleven starts this year. All four of the Cowboys’ top four players finished at T-7 or better. … Bryant is making its first NCCA regional appearance this week in Columbia. The Bulldogs opened with a 28-over 316. … Just how windy did it get mid-afternoon at Old Hawthorne? Windy enough to change a putt’s direction. “A putt that usually breaks right-to-left 3 inches would actually go the other way,” Leroux said. “It got pretty tough.” ₀ The scoring average for Round 1 was 74.72.