CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa – The lead would be snatched away by day’s end, but ultimately Spencer Ralston had a fine opening round at the Cedar Rapids Country Club.
The Georgia sophomore birdied six of his first 15 holes as he fired a 5-under 67 in Sunday’s first round at the Golfweek Conference Challenge. When he reached the clubhouse, Ralston was the solo leader.
North Carolina State’s Stephen Franken would later shoot a bogey-free 6-under 66 to take over the individual lead, but Ralston is certainly right there in solo second with 36 holes to go.
And it may be a bit fitting that he ducked under the lead by day’s end.
“He kind of flies under the radar,” said Chris Haack, Georgia’s head coach.
Indeed, Ralston quietly had an SEC All-Freshman campaign in 2016-17, compiling five top-12 finishes and a top-100 ranking by Golfweek. After Greyson Sigg graduated, Ralston is the Bulldogs’ highest-ranked returning player.
Ralston, of Gainesville, Ga., came out hot in the fall of his freshman year and actually struggled in the spring, a change he attributed to a cooled off putter.
Over the summer his putter let him down at a couple of key amateur events, so he changed his setup, getting more on top of the ball.
The flatstick has been rolling since, affording him a respectable T-23 finish even when his game wasn’t all there at the season-opening Carmel Cup. It also played a strong role on Day 1 in Cedar Rapids.
“A hot putter can make up for a lot,” Ralston said.
Ralston’s round, however, could not lift the Bulldogs on a difficult Sunday. Only one other Georgia player (Trevor Phillips, 72 for T-21) broke 76 in the first round, leaving Georgia in a tie for ninth at 4 over.
The team is already 18 shots back.
Georgia, annually one of college golf’s top programs, failed to make the NCAA Championship last season and fell short of match play the year before that.
Haack feels the issue here isn’t talent.
“I think something we’ve lost is that type of team chemistry here in the last couple of years,” Haack said.
So when the team arrived for the week at Cedar Rapids, Haack decided to implement an idea they had been talking about back in Athens, Ga.
At a team dinner Friday night, Haack had his players hand over their phones at the beginning of the meal. He put the devices off to the side under a hat, and the players couldn’t touch them until the meal was over.
It was a gambit to get everyone to pay more attention.
“It was actually nice having a conversation with them all,” Haack joked.
Ralston may be a model, sort of, in mending chemistry issues.
Ralston and Phillips, both sophomores, were at odds early in their careers at Georgia due to “different backgrounds” but took the time to understand each other and foster a good connection.
“We’ve grown up and started to appreciate each other a little more,” Phillips said. “He’s become one of my good friends now.”
Ralston has earned the team nickname “Junior,” a reference to a photo in which he was standing next to the head coach and his teammates felt Ralston looked like a “junior Haack.”
The sophomore has high aspirations. The Gainesville area has produced NFL players in Deshaun Watson (Texans) and T.J. Jones (Lions).
He hopes some day he can have their notoriety.
“It’s cool to see those guys on TV and what they’re doing, and try to be like them one day,” Ralston said.
If days like Sunday are any indication, Ralston might be on his way.