STILLWATER, Okla. – It could’ve been a long Friday for Everton Hawkins.
The Northwestern sophomore flailed his opening tee shot right, and had to play a provisional. Then, before he could even start looking for his original ball, the horn blew to suspend play. When it reopened, he found his original tee shot, but in a nearly unplayable lie in a mushy area and hacked his way to a double bogey at Karsten Creek Golf Club’s starting par 5.
He then bogeyed the par-4 second. But he stayed calm.
“I wasn’t too worried about it because there were a lot of holes that were definitely gettable especially with soft conditions,” Hawkins said. “I just knew that I was playing well.”
He parred his next six and then played his final 10 holes in 5 under for a gritty 2-under 70 to open the NCAA Championship at Karsten Creek Golf Club.
It turned out to be Northwestern’s second-best effort of the day, as junior Ryan Lumsden notched a 4-iron from 230 yards to 25 feet and drained the eagle putt at the par-5 18th for a 5-under 67 and a share of the individual lead.
Their efforts helped fuel Northwestern to the top spot early in a stop-and-start first day at Karsten Creek. The Wildcats fired an 8-under 280 and hold the clubhouse lead by eight shots, and their overall cushion is three.
A pair of delays Friday due to inclement weather totaled 3 hours and 28 minutes, and play was suspended due to darkness at 8:38 p.m. local time. The entire afternoon wave of 15 teams failed to finish their opening rounds and will resume them at 7 a.m. local time on Saturday, with Round 2 commencing an hour later.
Fourth-ranked Oklahoma (5 under) sits in second with just a few holes to play. Texas Tech, ranked 16th, is solo third at 4 under early in its back nine, and No. 1 Oklahoma State (this week’s hosts) finds itself fourth at 3 under with just a few holes to play as well.
But after one day, it’s No. 37 Northwestern, the sixth-lowest ranked squad in the 30-team field, that is on top.
“This is our first time back (at NCAAs) in a while, so we’re happy to be here and we have nothing to lose,” Hawkins said.
In fact, Northwestern’s last appearance at the NCAA Championship was at Karsten Creek. It was 2011, and Pat Goss was the head coach and David Inglis was the first-year assistant.
Seven years later, and Goss now serves as director of golf and player development while Inglis has taken the reins as head coach. Both are here this week and boast several experiences at Karsten.
In addition to that week in 2011, Inglis was head coach for a regional at the site just two years ago. He also competed as a player in the 2001 NCAA Central Regional at Karsten while a freshman at Tulsa.
“It’s pretty simple here, it’s just hard,” Inglis said. “You really just got to be prepared to fight your way through the day. I think that’s what the guys did a good job of today.”
Inglis feels the team has benefited from playing a 2017-18 schedule that has included so many difficult layouts. The coaches further prepared the team by going to its “Karsten Creek Game” a few times in recent weeks.
That activity involves the team foraying to a local course (mainly Conway Farms Golf Club), and players go out for a round – but most anything outside the regular rough (fescue, cart path) is played as if it’s out of bounds.
Lumsden said he shot 79 at Conway in their final playing of that game before coming to NCAAs. Hawkins recalled firing 87 the first time he played that game early in his freshman year.
“You shoot some high scores in that drill,” Hawkins said, laughing.
But it’s paid dividends. It’s focused the players on putting their drives in play on a course where the rough can be so penal. Lumsden didn’t feel comfortable with his driver on Friday, so he went to a number of stinger 3-woods to keep the ball in play.
Alongside that duo, Sam Triplett (T-24, 1 under) and Dylan Wu (T-37, Even par) also remained at par or better on Friday.
The first round isn’t even over, and the Wildcats still have potentially 54 holes of stroke play to go. Inglis noted that a soft course meant playing conditions couldn’t be any more perfect than they were on Friday and at any moment the course could bear its teeth.
He knows struggles will emerge at some point on this penal layout, and that opening round was just passing one of several tests this week.
Regardless, Northwestern felt right at home on an exacting layout Friday.
“This is our kind of golf,” Inglis said. “We can identify with this.”