Augusta State leads at its own Invitational

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AUGUSTA, Ga. – The hometown favorites are atop the leaderboard again at the Insperity Augusta State Invitational as they seek an 11th-hour postseason invitation. It’s a familiar storyline here in the shadow of the golf season’s first major.

Augusta State shot even-par 576 (283-293) in Saturday’s two rounds at Forest Hills Golf Club to take a two-shot lead over No. 4 Texas (296-282) in this collegiate undercard to the Masters. Georgia, the nation’s No. 14 team, is in third place at 4 over par after shooting 295-285.

Augusta State also has two individuals tied for the individual lead: Derek Chang and Robin Petersson, who both shot 68-72 Saturday. Central Florida’s Greg Eason (70-70) and South Carolina’s Matthew NeSmith (67-73) also are tied for the lead. NeSmith, a freshman, hails from North Augusta and estimates he’s played Forest Hills a hundred times. NeSmith has fared well in tournaments near his hometown. His best finish of the season was a T-3 at the Palmetto Intercollegiate at nearby Palmetto Golf Club just across the border in Aiken, S.C. He’s finished in the top 10 in his past three starts.

“I grew up 10 minutes from here,” said NeSmith, No. 121 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings. “I knew if I could get some momentum going, I could play well.”

Augusta State is No. 58 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings, but leading a field that includes 12 top-50 teams and seven in the top 30. The Jaguars always seem to play well at their home event. Last year, they tied No. 1 Texas for first place before losing a playoff; the Longhorns went on to win the NCAA title less than two months later.

“The guys play with confidence here,” Augusta State head coach Kevin McPherson said. “After playing the course 100-plus times, you learn how to score, where to hit it and where is a good miss. The biggest challenge with Forest Hills is understanding the greens. It’s an old-style Donald Ross course, with a great deal of undulation in the greens. Our guys have learned every contour and break of the greens over the years, which gives us a big advantage over the teams that struggle on these greens. If you play a course enough, you’re bound to encounter every shot in the bag and breed confidence.”

Augusta State, the 2010 and 2011 NCAA champion, must play well Sunday to keep its postseason hopes alive. The Jaguars compete as a Division I independent, and must rely on an at-large bid to reach postseason play. Teams must have a winning head-to-head record to be eligible for such a bid, though.

Augusta State is 50-65-2 this year. There are 14 Division I teams at the Augusta State Invitational. That means it is impossible for Augusta State to reach the .500 mark after this event. Even a victory would leave them with a 63-65-2 record. This is Augusta State’s final scheduled start of the year, but the team’s postseason hopes are not doomed. Sunday’s final round will be their 23rd day of competition this season; teams are allowed 24 days under NCAA rules. The Jaguars could play a one-day event to gain the victories necessary to get over .500.

Augusta State was in a similar position last year. The Jaguars entered last year’s Augusta State Invitational with a sub-.500 record, but became eligible for a postseason bid after their second-place finish.

A little luck and inclement weather gave Augusta State the option of playing another event. Their previous event, the Hootie at Bulls Bay Intercollegiate, was shortened to 36 holes because of inclement weather. The Hootie’s reduction to two rounds gave the Jaguars an extra day of competition.

Augusta State already created one single-day this season, the Forest Hills Intercollegiate, at the same course that's hosting the Augusta State Invitational. The Jaguars won that event at their home course and site of this weekend’s event. It was the team’s first victory since the 2011 NCAA Championship. Augusta State also won its next start, at the Cleveland Golf Palmetto Invitational at Palmetto Golf Club in nearby Aiken, S.C. The Jaguars followed those back-to-back wins with a 12th-place finish in the 15-team Hootie, though.

The Jaguars will be paired with Texas and Georgia in Sunday’s final round. They’ll be playing for more than a victory for their hometown fans. They’ll be trying to keep their postseason hopes alive.

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