Kissimmee Regional: Host UCF uses smarts, firepower to share early lead as No. 10 seed

Courtesy of UCF Athletics

Kissimmee Regional: Host UCF uses smarts, firepower to share early lead as No. 10 seed

Men

Kissimmee Regional: Host UCF uses smarts, firepower to share early lead as No. 10 seed

LIVE SCORING: Team | Individual
TEAM LEADER(S): UCF, Florida (12-under 276)
INDIVIDUAL LEADER(S): Bobby Bai, UCF; Jusso Kahlos, UCF; George Cunningham, Arizona; Chase Johnson, Kent State (5-under 67)
IN POSITION: 3. Kent State (280), 4. South Florida (282), 5. Vanderbilt (283), 5. North Carolina (283)
CHASING: 7. Arizona (284), 8. Jacksonville State (286), 9. Purdue (288), 9. Colorado State (288)

• • •

KISSIMMEE, Fla. – The Knights were on the cusp of not getting here in the first place.

UCF was firmly on the bubble to reach NCAA regionals heading into the American Athletic Conference Championship. Bryce Wallor, the Knights’ head coach, did the math and figured his squad needed to finish third or better to secure a regionals spot.

Under that pressure … the squad placed third exactly.

“We had a lot of heat on us and I’m proud of them,” Wallor said. “They did a good job.”

That penchant to step up continued Monday on home turf.

The 10th-seeded Knights are serving as hosts at the NCAA Kissimmee Regional and took full advantage on a rainy Monday, firing an opening 12-under 276 at Reunion Resort’s Watson Course to share the first-round lead with second-seeded Florida.

It’s just the sort of round UCF was envisioning on a layout where it has a leg up.

“Getting to be on a golf course where you’re getting a feel of the greens, the feel of the fairway, how the ball’s jumping, where no one else is, it’s a bit of an advantage,” Wallor said.

That, of course, is no accident.

UCF may be hosts, but Reunion Resort is not exactly around the corner. In fact, it’s nearly a one-hour drive from campus. The distance prevented the Knights from practicing at the Watson Course in the past, but with regionals set for the layout in 2018, they began to trek around the course last spring.

In the months leading up to this week’s event, the group played the layout roughly 15-20 times – including a qualifier over spring break.

“We’ve played the course a lot, we know every pin, we know how the course plays,” said Manuel Elvira, who opened in 1-under 71 to sit T-21.

That confidence manifested itself Monday. Elvira noted that the team has done extensive work with wedges, short game and putting in recent weeks to prepare for a shorter Watson Course that requires precision inside 120 yards to produce the run of birdies needed to keep up.

The UCF starters combined for 21 birdies (the most in the field) and one eagle on Day 1.

None were bigger helpers than Bobby Bai and Juuso Kahlos. The Knights pair fired 5-under 67s to share the 18-hole lead with Arizona’s George Cunningham and Kent State’s Chase Johnson.

Kahlos was actually 1 over on his round when he came to the 17th (his eighth hole of the day). He then caught fire with three straight birdies and made three more at Nos. 3, 6 and 8 for his lead round. The senior felt his ball-striking clicking, and his putter got hot on greens where he noted the team had an advantage in knowing the subtle breaks.

But Bai’s 67 may turn even more heads. The sophomore began his day birdie-birdie-birdie-bogey-eagle, settled down and then produced three more birdies against two bogeys for his score.

Bai has had an up-and-down sophomore season, but there’s no doubting his raw talent. Wallor referred to his swing speed as “ungodly” when he arrived, and Bai has been known at times to muscle out 400-yard drives.

He’s aggressive beyond belief: He sees the flag and goes. But that has its downside.

“Bobby’s like driving a Ferrari, he’s got the best handling, the best engine, he’s got all the shots,” Wallor explained, “the problem is he doesn’t know when to push the pedal into turn, so he’ll blow up the car every now and again.”

Wallor had walked with Bai on and off during tournaments earlier in the sophomore’s career, but he’s gone every round with Bai since deciding to tag along with him for his final round this spring at the 3M Augusta Invitational.

After opening 77-78 without Wallor keeping eye, Bai finished in 64 with coach right by. Two weeks later, Bai won the Boilermaker Invitational.

Wallor says there isn’t a whole lot he does, simply backing Bai off a little when he’s getting too aggressive. But it pays dividends. That was the case Monday when Bai wished to fly his second shot to a back flag at the par-5 14th.

Sensing the danger, Wallor informed his pupil that such a play could lead to the ball hitting hard, bounding over the green and rolling out of bounds. Why not play a punch 3-iron short of the hole and leave yourself an eagle putt and little chance of disaster?

Bai listened and got his ball to finish 40 feet below the hole. He drained the eagle putt.

Bai himself pointed to Wallor’s input as a key in his resurgence in recent months, as has work on his action that has seen the area of his misses (Bai was known to hit drives 50-60 yards offline) drastically decrease.

“My swing is getting more stable than before,” Bai said. “I’m hitting my driver more consistent.”

While two days remain, the Knights are in a familiar position. It was just last year the team captured the NCAA College Grove Regional for its second regional win in program history. Only a top-five finish at Reunion is needed to advance to the NCAA Championship and the forecast for rain and thunderstorms the next two days could mean 18, rather than 36, holes stand between the Knights and an appearance at nationals.

For a team that had to claw its way just to reach this stage, the mindset heading forward is one deemphasizing the stress.

“Just keep having fun,” Elvira said. “Why take it too serious and frustrate myself?”

So far, the Knights are keeping calm on familiar grounds.

Latest

More Golfweek
Home