OSU, FSU lead NCAAs shootout
OOLTEWAH, Tenn. – Claps of thunder reverberated around the boundaries of The Honors Course throughout the opening round of the NCAA Championship on Tuesday, but the rain and lightning never came, unlike the red numbers.
“So much going on, but nothing,” said UCLA’s Pontus Widegren, one of 10 players to finish Round 1 at 3-under 69, one shot behind individual leaders Henrik Norlander of Augusta State and Jesper Kennegard of Arizona State.
That gust of wind you thought you felt? That was just Widegren blowing dry his sweaty palms, the ones from “cold and dry Sweden” that aren’t used to this kind of humidity.
“Mother Nature did nothing to try to hurt the scores today,” said Oklahoma State coach Mike McGraw, whose top-ranked Cowboys finished the day at the top of the leaderboard at 5-under 283, tied with 19th-ranked Florida State, one shot ahead of Oregon.
Sixteen teams are within 10 shots of the all-important eighth-and-final spot that will qualify for match play, which starts Friday.
“Conditions I think were the main story today,” McGraw said. “It was perfect weather conditions out there. So perfect, you couldn’t even imagine. If you would have had some wind out there, we would have had a whole different story.”
All day, players and coaches waited for a storm, or at least a siren. All day, the sounds of clouds colliding seemed to remind them that danger is lurking right around the corner. Rumbles still could be heard as darkness fell late Tuesday evening, as if to chuckle about what could happen Wednesday.
McGraw and Florida State coach Trey Jones stressed to reporters that they weren’t trying to say that the course played easy. Just easier.
“This course couldn’t have played any easier than it did today, and I don’t want that to come off as the course played easy,” Jones said.
Already overused stat of the week: Tiger Woods may have won the 1996 NCAA individual title here, but he also shot a final-round 80 here. That round happened to include a triple-bogey on the par-4 ninth hole, where Oklahoma State’s Peter Uihlein hit his approach in a patch of rough below the right side of the green and failed to get up-and-down for par with his 60-degree wedge for the first time in three holes.
Highlights: NCAA Championship (Rd. 1)
Uihlein’s closing bogey (OSU teed of on No. 10) left him in that crowded chase pack at 3 under, but also dropped Oklahoma State to 2 over on one of the easiest holes of the day - “a gift hole,” as McGraw called it.
“That was disappointing, especially when you watch another team shoot 4 under on the same hole,” McGraw said, “but we played well.”
It seems The Honors Course wasn’t about to let things get completely out of control. Widegren was 4 under through eight holes before lipping out consecutive 7-footers on Nos. 9 (for birdie) and 10 (for par) and then finding the fescue with his tee shot on No. 11. He bogeyed Nos. 10-12, but made two late birdies, on Nos. 16-17, to keep UCLA from falling further down the leaderboard. The Bruins shot 6-over 294 and were tied for 16th.
“The challenges on this course never stop,” Widegren said.
Quite simply, it’s a give-and-take kind of place, which Stanford’s Steve Ziegler experienced firsthand in his even-par 72, which featured five birdies, three bogeys and a double-bogey.
“It’s a great championship course in that way,” Ziegler said.
Co-leader Norlander three-putted his first hole, the par-4 10th, then chipped in for eagle on the par-5 11th. After the round, he sang the same tune as most of Tuesday’s successors, which is more or less a song called “Fairways – or the highways.”
“You just have to put it in the fairways,” said Norlander, No. 19 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings. “It’s tough if you don’t put it in the fairways. Impossible.”
Jones warned his Seminoles, who are coming off a runner-up finish at the NCAA Central Regional, not to fall into a false sense of security – “Fool’s gold,” as he called it.
“If you’re thinking you’ve got it going great out there, you’re going to get hit in the nose with something,” Jones said, pointing to junior Drew Kittleson’s birdie-double bogey-birdie stretch from Nos. 15-17 in his 2-under 70.
“This golf course can get you in a lot of different directions,” Jones said.
It helped Florida State to be relaxed, as Jones said the Seminoles were coming off a “phenomenal” practice round, filled with equal parts laughter (See: those new “huge visors” that they ordered especially for this week) and focus.
“They’re just relaxed right now; they’re really confident,” Jones said, “and it’s just fun to watch them play.”
Did anyone else hear that thunder?