Five things: Gators continue to be tough at home

Andres Echavarria

Andres Echavarria

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1Joey GarberGeorgia  68.61 
2Robby SheltonAlabama  68.62 
3Patrick RodgersStanford  68.67 
4Ollie SchniederjansGA Tech  68.81 
5Cameron WilsonStanford  69.05 

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1Alabama 68.92 
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5California 69.81  11 

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – There were few surprises Saturday on a sun-kissed opening day of the SunTrust Gator Invitational. A familiar champion is leading (Florida). A familiar name is lurking (Bank Vongvanij). And a familiar question was asked afterward: Why can’t you beat the Gators at Mark Bostick Golf Course?

So while Florida will take a six-stroke lead into Sunday’s final round, there are other stories of interest here in Gainesville. These are five storylines to watch as the Gators pursue their eighth consecutive victory in their home event:

1.) Can any team stop Florida? The Gators posted a two-round score of 3-over 563 and lead conference rival Auburn by six shots. LSU overcame a sluggish start to post 574, good for solo third. Not surprisingly, Mark Bostick GC has been the Gators’ personal playground for the past seven years. Of course, that has something to do with it being the Gators’ home course, and few teams seem to navigate this par-70, 6,700-yard, claustrophobic track with more precision. “People look at the yardage and think it’s not very long, but this golf course has its defenses,” said Florida sophomore Phillip Choi, who is tied for third individually, at 1-over 141. “It’s a pretty tricky little golf course.”

And a course that didn’t yield many low scores on Saturday. No player shot lower than 68 on a day when hole locations were put in difficult locations, on top of ridges and tucked in corners. “I don’t know what it is,” said Ole Miss senior Jonathan Randolph, “but it seems like the wind blows into you on every hole.”

2.) Is Bank Vongvanij the best player in college golf? Have to hold off on his coronation after a second-round 74. A victory at the Gator Invite likely would have made Vongvanij the frontrunner for the important end-of-season awards – it would be his third title of the season – but on Saturday he was overshadowed by teammate Andres Echavarria, who has a one-shot lead over Randolph. “It happens to all of us, but it was a little unexpected because I was hitting the ball good the whole week before, too,” said Vongvanij, who is tied for fifth, three strokes back. “I don’t know if I lost focus during a long day, but I’m going to try not to do it again, because that’s not fun to be hitting it that bad.”

3.) What was up with LSU’s start? Oh, was it ugly – especially for Tigers coach Chuck Winstead. After the round he was sitting alone in his cart when approached by a reporter. Asked to explain what happened in the morning round, Winstead hadn’t a good answer. “The last three weeks we’ve played very well at home, and the first two hours here, I’m not sure I knew these five guys could play that poorly. ... That was pretty hard to watch. We’ve got a talented group, and for them to go out and play the way they did, I don’t know what to tell you, other than I haven’t seen that.”

A 14-over 294 in Round 1 . . . was it the cold? Or was it the wind? Or was it the course that has tormented every player not in a Florida polo? “No excuses,”  Winstead said. “If I knew, I’d make sure that never happened again, because it wasn’t fun for them, and it dang sure wasn’t any fun for me.”

Of course, the Tigers did turn it around in the afternoon round and managed to pull within 11 strokes of the lead. A big reason was the play of Jones Cup winner John Peterson, who went 77-68 to move into a tie for 20th. Now, four Tigers – Ken Looper (T-5), Andrew Loupe and Clayton Rotz (T-14) – are in the top 20.

“You think this course is easy, that you can shoot 62 out here, but if you get on the short side and make double, it’s tough to rebound from that,” Peterson said. “It’s my fourth time here and I still can’t figure this place out.”

4.) How significant is the home-course advantage? Let’s put it this way: No coach interviewed on Saturday was surprised that Florida was in the lead. “Everyone who comes in here,” said Auburn coach Nick Clinard, “you know Florida is in its comfort zone, its environment. Yeah, that makes a huge difference.”

Peterson described it thusly: “The course plays all of 7,000 yards,” taking out his yardage book and pointing to his notes on the 18th hole. “This hole plays 12 yards uphill. You’ve got to have a feel for that. You don’t see the Florida guys pulling out their books.”

And that accounts for Florida winning seven consecutive years here? “It’s crazy,” Peterson said, “because they don’t hit it any differently. They just seem to make the ball disappear faster.”

5.) Who will win the individual title? The race is so tight, and there is no shortage of serious contenders. Consider this: The leader, Echavarria, has only won once, so it’s natural to wonder if nerves will be an issue. Randolph is a proven winner, a three-time champion in 2010, and he’s played the most consistent – rounds of 70-70 with few putts holed. Oh, yeah – he also won medalist honors here last year. And Auburn’s Blayne Barber, a trendy pick to win last week’s Jones Cup, shot an afternoon 69 and seems on the verge of a breakout round.

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