STILLWATER, Okla. – In no way is anyone suggesting that Karsten Creek is easy. It’s far from that.
But this week at the NCAA Championship, it is doable. By doable, we mean, maybe a little more offense than defense can and is being played.
Built in 1993, Karsten Creek was as intimidating as any venue in college golf. High rough and firm greens pushed the scoring average at the 2003 NCAA Championship to 77.9 for the week. That average was 76.21 in 2011 and this week through three days of play we are at 74.61.
But, there is more to the better scoring than the lack of high, thick grass and firm turf.
Better equipment is playing a role in what we are seeing this week.
Clemson coach Larry Penley saw his team win the national championship in 2003 here. His Tigers would finish the event at 39 over.
Penley talked about the equipment: “These kids hit it straight. Being able to step up and hit the ball in play without fear is the only reason you can beat this golf course.”
Penley also reminded us of the shaved areas around the putting greens.
“In 2003 the greens were quicker, maybe a little harder and the rough was higher, but we had what you called a curb. They shaved everything around the greens and that shaved area went to the rough line that was six inches. The ball would roll right up to that and stop or just go into it.”
Arizona State’s Alejandro Canizares would post just one round under 70 and finish the event at 1 under. We are likely to see the individual winner this week reach double digits.
Overall, Karsten Creek will be again be a winner, but there have been some wins by the field this week.
Right out of the gate, Clemson’s Bryson Nimmer would turn in a bogey-free 8-under 64 to set the low 18-hole round on the par-72, 7460-yard layout. The previous best individual round was a 7-under 65. That was recorded in the 2011 NCAA Championship by LSU’s John Peterson in the second round. He would win the individual title, which was a 54-hole contest, at 5-under 211.
The best team score to date was a 6-under 282 set by Florida at the 1996 Karsten Creek Collegiate. That number has already been trumped four times in the opening three rounds. Duke did the unthinkable with a 12-under 276 Sunday in the third round. It’s a score, too, that looked as if it was going to be better. The Blue Devils had it to 15 under before a bogey and double bogey in the final two holes left them with a performance that was three shots better than Alabama’s 279 in the second round. Auburn and Northwestern shot 280 this week, also better than Florida’s 282 more than 12 years ago.
Softer fairways and more receptive greens have been part of the recipe for the better scoring. But, again the equipment is probably the difference-maker. Oklahoma coach Ryan Hybl, who played at Georgia, competed in the 2003 championship here at Karsten Creek and has seen the transition with equipment.
“These guys just don’t hit it as crooked as we used to,” Hybl said. “The high stuff is in your mind, but these guys are just so used to being comfortable hitting driver and its not as big of a deal as it was when this golf course was first developed. I promise you that.”
Maybe the biggest defense Karsten Creek can have is wind, and we had very little in that department.
“Wind is everything out here,” Texas Tech coach Greg Sands said. “The difference between 5 and 10 miles per hour to 10 and 15 totally makes a big difference. That’s the difference-maker.”
Duke’s Alex Smalley, who helped the Blue Devils to their record round with a 2-under 70, had this perspective: These guys are good.
“I think we are a little surprised by how low the scores are because this is a tough golf course, but not really because everyone here plays really well,” Smalley said.
Smalley also noted that the greens are probably not as firm as they would like, but he is correct, there a lot of good players.
The rough that garnered so much attention in past championships is manageable, depending on the lie.
“I have had a couple where they have been downgrain and it wasn’t an issue and then I have had some where it sat down and you had to muscle it out,” Smalley said. “You definitely don’t want to hit it in there.”
Instead of a grind, it’s about being more strategic. Duke coach Jamie Green referred to his team as “studious.” Maybe that’s why they are winning to this point. The Blue Devils are figuring out which holes you can go get and which holes you have to be careful on better than the rest of the field.
You might expect to see Karsten flex its muscle in the final round of stroke play and certainly in match play. Most players and coaches have commented on the setup being generous, or at least not as difficult as it could be.
That will probably change with a few more rounds to go to decide a champion.