5 Things: Chattanooga leads Conference Challenge
BURLINGTON, Iowa – We know, you were distracted by the NFL, Tour Championship and Solheim Cup. Here’s what you missed from the first round of the Golfweek Conference Challenge while you were glued to your television:
1. Choo-choo, Chattanooga: Chattanooga and Mocs senior Stephan Jaeger are your first-round leaders at Spirit Hollow Golf Course. The Mocs shot 9-under 279, led by Jaeger’s bogey-free 67. Jaeger, the 2010 and 2011 Southern Conference player of the year, was No. 60 in last season’s Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings. He wasn’t an All-American last season, but has been talked about for a couple years as a player who should be among the nation’s elite.
“He’s starting to believe he is as good as he is capable of being,” said Chattanooga head coach Mark Guhne. “From that standpoint, it’s a lot of fun to watch. I’ve felt like he’s been capable of what he’s doing now. I think the U.S. Amateur was a big turning point for him.”
Jaeger beat Blayne Barber in the first round at Erin Hills before losing to NCAA champion John Peterson. Jaeger had an indifferent summer before the Amateur. He often struggles during the summer because he returns to Germany and works on swing changes with his coach. He opened the college season with a 14th-place finish at the Carpet Capital.
“It’s hard to work on your swing and play good golf,” said Jaeger, who won his first college title at the 2011 LSU National Invitational. “I always try to get to the next step in the summer, and I did that.”
Jaeger shot 68-72-75 at the Carpet Capital. His team also struggled in the final round. The Mocs showed their potential by working their way into second through 36 holes, but a final-round 290 dropped them to sixth.
2. Must be the uniforms: Arkansas wore stylish all-white uniforms for the first round of the Golfweek Conference Challenge. The Razorbacks played well enough to back up their fashion statement, shooting 280 to finish a shot behind Chattanooga.
The Razorbacks are trying to win their second consecutive event to start the season. Arkansas is coming off a three-shot victory at the Gopher Invitational. Austin Cook, the team’s No. 3 player, shot 68 Sunday.
Cook’s putting has improved greatly since switching to a belly putter before last season’s regionals. He shot 59 at Blessings Golf Club his first time using the long putter (full disclosure: he was playing the red tees). He finished 14th at the Southeast Regional, 10th at the NCAA Championship and opened this season with a sixth-place finish at the Gopher.
He didn’t three-putt once at the Gopher, then holed a 12-foot putt on the Conference Challenge’s first hole to keep the streak alive. He’s now three-putt-free for his first four rounds this season. Cook also holed a 40-foot birdie putt on No. 6.
The long putter has become a hot trend on the PGA Tour. Cook said he wasn’t aware of that fact when he made the switch.
“I just did it to help my game,” Cook said. “Seeing other guys use it just reinforced that it was a good decision. It’s like when you get a new car. You think nobody has the same one, then quickly realize a lot of people do, too.”
3. Not quite deja vu: Iowa was dominant in the first round of last year’s Golfweek Conference Challenge, shooting 20-under 268 for a 15-shot lead. They went on to win the event by 15 shots. The Hawkeyes weren’t able to repeat that round this year but find themselves in contention. They’re tied for third at 5-under 283.
Chris Brant, co-medalist with since-graduated teammate Vince India at last year’s Conference Challenge, shot 70 Sunday. He won his first start this season, at the Gopher Invitational. Sunday’s round included a holed-out sand wedge from approximately 100 yards for eagle on the par-5 10th.
“I feel like when I tee it up now, I’m trying to win. I don’t mean to seem narcissistic when I say that, but I’ve changed my attitude when I play. I’m trying to find this place of enjoyment, this feeling of joy that I feel when I play well, every time I go play.”
One good omen for the Hawkeyes? They’re coming off a sixth-place finish at the Gopher Invitational. Iowa also finished sixth at last year’s Gopher.
4. Holding steady: Oklahoma State, playing without Peter Uihlein, shot 283 to tie Iowa. The Cowboys were led by Sean Einhaus’ 5-under 31 on Spirit Hollow’s back nine. He saved bogey on No. 9 after hitting his approach shot into the water to turn in 37. He hit a 9-iron off the flagstick to within inches of the hole for birdie on the 11th hole, then birdied Nos. 12 and 13. He bogeyed the 15th, but closed with birdies on Nos. 16-18. Einhaus is coming off a 15th-place finish at the Olympia Fields/Fighting Illini Invitational.
5. Top to bottom: Chris Robb and Steven Fox played in the No. 4 and 5 positions, respectively, for Chattanooga, but were the Mocs’ two biggest contributors behind Jaeger. “When I look at this team, I can’t tell you who’s No. 2 and who’s No. 5,” Guhne said. “It’s the first time we’ve ever been in that situation.”
Fox played in the fifth position Sunday not because of his standing among his fellow Mocs, but out of personal preference. Playing fifth allowed the fast-playing Fox to tee off in the tournament’s first group. His threesome toured Spirit Hollow in about 4 hours, 30 minutes, a good time for a group of college golfers.
“He’d play in 2 hours if you’d let him,” Guhne said.