Iowa in control at Conference Challenge
RIVERSIDE, Iowa – Upright cornstalks and downright good golf shots are just a couple signs of the calmness falling over Blue Top Ridge on the eve of the final round of Golfweek’s Conference Challenge.
Iowa’s second-round 8-under 280, which turned a five-shot deficit into a four-shot lead Monday on an impeccable afternoon in Eastern Iowa, is another.
The Hawkeyes, coming off their best season of the decade after advancing to last season’s NCAA Championship, avoided high numbers in atypically serene conditions to get to 8-under 568 for the tournament, four shots better than Florida State and seven ahead of first-round leader Baylor.
“Overall you can just tell they were in the moment the entire day,” said coach Mark Hankins, in his third season with the Hawkeyes after leading Michigan State to multiple Big 10 championships. “I think there’s a calmness about this group, and that’s really helping us.”
One example: Junior Brad Hopfinger’s course-record 5-under 67, which gave him a two-shot lead in the individual race over Vanderbilt’s Hudson Johnson, Florida State’s Drew Kittleson and Jason Millard of Middle Tennessee State. It also put him in the lead group for the first time in his career.
“It’s great,” he said. “It’s right where you want to be.”
Hopinger’s teammate, Vince India, who recently shot 68 at Blue Ridge Top to come from 11 shots back and win the Iowa Open, shrugged off the new record mark in jest, saying he shot his round “in a hurricane.” (Hopfinger tied for 10th that week.)
Conference Challenge: Can anyone catch Iowa?
“Usually we’re out here playing in 20 mph winds,” said Hankins, whose team practices at Blue Top Ridge about twice a week. “Normally out here if you miss a shot it’s going in a bunker – and the bunkers are deep. If you miss a shot a little bit the wind is going to take it.”
The toughest round of golf so far has been Saturday’s cool and windy morning practice round. That day, India predicted the winner would come in “over par” as long as the wind kept up. Scoring averages have only improved since; the field checked in at 74.6 for Round 1, 73.8 for Round 2.
You probably can attribute that difference to how Iowa played the par-4 13th hole in Sunday’s opening round, beginning with Hopfinger’s double-bogey 6.
Next up was India, who stepped to the 13th tee at 4 under and without a bogey, having just eagled the par-5 12th. He then hit his drive about 6 feet off the fairway into a patch of fescue. With Hankins there to confer, India figured the lie was good enough to take a swing at it. Hankins agreed. Three shots later, India finally pitched out successfully. A three-putt led to a quadruple-bogey 8 and turned a great round into a 1-over 73, and put Iowa at 6 over for one hole. (India shot a second-round 1-under 71.)
Monday, the Hawkeyes played No. 13 in 1 under.
Golfweek's Conference Challenge (Rd. 2)
Photos from the second round of Golfweek's Conference Challenge, played Aug. 31 at Blue Top Ridge in Riverside, Iowa.
“Mentally, we just weren’t as rusty today,” said Hankins. “We did a much better job of staying in the present and just kind of keeping the emotions out of it.”
Hankins’ lineup still features four of the five guys that were a part of last season’s postseason run, which included a fifth-place finish at the NCAA East Regional and a 17th-place finish in the finals at Inverness.
Hankins said such success has brought confidence in the form of calmness. As far as all this still air, less than 15 miles from the Iowa campus? That’s just a coincidence.
“We’re carrying that same calmness right now, that’s what we have right now and that’s really helping us,” said Hankins.
“That’s helping Vince make an 8 and come back and play well, and that’s helping Brad shoot the number he did today,” he said. “These guys trust each other and they’re confident that each guy is out there battling.”
Roger that, says Kittleson, who shot 69 Monday to help Florida State within striking distance for their first victory since the 2008 ACC Championship.
“We have to play well,” said Kittleson, looking for his first individual victory in the process. “They’re not going to hand it to us.”