Arkansas' Charles Kim rolls in clutch putt, as he and the Razorbacks win SunTrust Gator Invitational

Arkansas' Charles Kim rolls in clutch putt, as he and the Razorbacks win SunTrust Gator Invitational

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Arkansas' Charles Kim rolls in clutch putt, as he and the Razorbacks win SunTrust Gator Invitational

Final leaderboard

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Nobody ever claimed winning your first college golf tournament was easy. But did it really have to be this hard?

Arkansas’ Charles Kim started the final round of the SunTrust Gator Invitational with a three-shot lead and he birdied the first hole Sunday to move to 7 under and four clear at the Mark Bostick Golf Course. Forget whether he would win, it looked Kim would cruise to the title.

But the course kicked back swiftly. Kim bogeyed his next three holes to fall into a tie for the lead with Missouri’s Rory Franssen. Then he took Franssen’s best punches the entire back nine and still had a chance as he faced some 170 yards in the par-4 18th fairway.

One back and hitting before Franssen, Kim was determined to be aggressive. Standing there with assistant coach Barrett Lais, the sophomore was just thinking about getting the ball back to a flag perched up over a ridge in the back right. A knockdown 6-iron did the trick. Kim nearly jarred the shot for eagle before the ball trundled some 10 feet past.

Franssen responded by pulling his second shot left of the green, chipping 20 feet by the hole and missing the par putt right.

That meant Kim’s putt would be to win the individual title, and he rolled it true.

Boom. Kim, who transferred from Texas prior to last spring, had never finished better than T-9 in a team college event until now. Not only did he get his first victory, but No. 30 Arkansas pulled out a seven-shot team victory over No. 35 Missouri and No. 43 Jacksonville. Let’s also not forget the Razorbacks defeated No. 3 Florida, hosting the event on its home course, by eight shots (the Gators placed solo fourth).

For the 54 holes, Kim posted rounds of 68, 66 and 70 for a 6-under total in a masterful performance (a one-shot victory over Franssen) that had him ecstatic in the aftermath.

“It obviously feels awesome to win, I don’t really have any other way to put it,” Kim said. “I feel like I played the best I could have these last three rounds.”

But how about the Razorbacks themselves? Was Kim’s win or his team’s triumph more impressive? It’s hard to say.

It was going to be tough enough for Arkansas to beat this 15-team field this week and then the Razorbacks’ top player, Alvaro Ortiz, came down with mystery stomach discomfort the day before the team left for the event. It was not a stomach bug, as first diagnosed, and Ortiz’s pain became too much during Friday’s practice round, as after a few holes, he was off to a local hospital and in no shape to compete for the Razorbacks this week.

The Good News: Arkansas has generally brought six players (five starters, one playing as individual) to each event this year in order to get a freshmen-heavy roster more reps. So Mason Overstreet, who was supposed to be the team’s individual scorer this week, was bumped to the starting lineup in Ortiz’s absence.

But still, that meant a roster of four freshmen and a sophomore, and again, this was also minus the team’s best player. The Razorbacks have generally had three freshmen starters each event as the team has replenished from the loss of three key seniors.

Needing to step up quickly, the young crop has. Head coach Brad McMakin says he was worried about the team’s youth heading into 2016-17, but it hasn’t been much of a problem, as it’s turned out.

OK, Ortiz, a junior, stepping up to carry the No. 1 load has helped as he’s finished top 20 in every event and at No. 45 is the highest-ranked player on the team by nearly 100 spots. But when McMakin informed players Friday that they would be sans Ortiz for the weekend, the youngsters essentially told him all would be good.

“It was nice to hear freshmen stand up and say to not worry about it, we’re going to be able to do this,” McMakin said.

It works both ways. When McMakin informed Overstreet, one of those freshmen, he would be in the starting lineup as Ortiz was out, he did so matter-of-factly.

“He just came up to me and said I was in, and that was really it,” Overstreet said. “He was just like, ‘Let’s Go.’ ”

The replacement held more than his own, posting 4 over to finish T-12. Luis Garza closed in 65 to finish T-16 at 5 over, Dylan Naidoo posted at 8 over for T-33 and William Buhl recovered from an opening-round 79 to finish T-58 at 12 over.

Arkansas led the whole way, sitting T-1 after 18 holes, five ahead after 36 (at the end of Day 1) and seven clear in the end.

during the SunTrust Gator Invitational on Sunday, February 19, 2017 at the Mark Bostick Golf Course in Gainesville, FL / UAA Communications photo by Tim Casey

Brad McMakin (left) poses after his team’s win at the SunTrust Gator Invitational. (UAA Communications/Tim Casey)

But now let’s get back to Kim, who had played poorly enough in the fall to be left off the roster in two events. This was a battle of No. 279 (Franssen) vs. No. 326 (Kim) in college golf, but it hardly felt like it. After struggling in their first 11 holes, the action got jump started.

Franssen holed a wedge shot from the right rough from about 80 yards for eagle at the par-5 12th. Kim, from two ahead to tied in an instant, responded with a deft chip from a difficult spot beyond the green to 3 feet. He birdied to stay ahead.

But when Franssen then made a beautiful birdie at the next to square things up, he’d now gone eagle-birdie, and Kim started to ponder whether it was the Mizzou man’s day.

“When he piped it on the next hole and made birdie, I was like, ‘OK, it might start going his way very quickly,’ ” Kim said.

The Razorback said he was struggling to keep up as Franssen poured it on, but Kim was determined to keep it close and hang in there. After Franssen bogeyed 15, Kim led alone again.

But the Missouri freshman then rolled in a 10-footer for birdie at 16 and an unbelievable 20-footer that broke several feet right-to-left for another at the next to jump to 6 under. When Kim couldn’t roll in a 12-footer for birdie at 17, he was one down.

He seized his chance in the 18th fairway, and may have been even more impressive with his putt. It was a stroke straight downhill and veering hard to the left.

Kim and Lais noticed a tiny leaf, and decided on a line that would roll the ball right over it. But when playing competitor Jorge Garcia, of Florida, hit a putt from a similar angle that showed more break, the Arkansas duo altered the read, instead playing the ball with die speed outside the leaf to the right. Perfect adjustment.

“I actually managed to hit the putt, which was great,” Kim said, with a laugh.

Where does Arkansas go from here? McMakin felt this tournament was a turning point even before Sunday, just knowing his team could be in position to win without having to put so much weight (or any this week) on Ortiz.

The victory was the Razorbacks’ second of the season and bodes well for a team that back-loaded its schedule in an effort to take some pressure off a young roster in the fall. Ortiz’s ailment is still unclear – although he did appear to be feeling a bit better Sunday, as he was out on the course watching unlike the previous day – but he will go in for lab work on Monday.

The team’s hope is he’ll be feeling well enough to travel with the team to Mexico on Friday and compete in the Querencia Cabo Collegiate, the team’s next event. The team’s overall plan is to continue employing a six-man roster at every event until the SEC Championship rolls around.

But at least for one night, it’s good to savor a uniquely satisfying week.

“Four freshmen and a sophomore? That’s a pretty good win,” Overstreet said.

Nobody could argue with that.

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