By SEAN MARTIN
TOLEDO, Ohio (May 26, 2009) – If a golf course is measured by its ability to identify the best players, then Inverness Club had the most successful day during the first round of the NCAA Division I Men’s Championship.
No teams and only eight individuals broke par Tuesday at the four-time U.S. Open site, but the fortunate few who found success were also the best the country has to offer.
No. 1 Georgia and second-ranked Oklahoma State finished the first round tied for the lead at 4-over 288, four shots better than Chattanooga, the team that started the season ranked No. 1.
North Carolina State’s Matt Hill, the leading candidate to be named this year’s player of the year, shot 2-under 69 to tie for the individual lead with Northwestern’s Jonathan Bowers and Illinois’ Scott Langley. Five players shot 70, including Washington’s Nick Taylor, another player of the year candidate, and UCLA’s Philip Francis.
It’s no coincidence that Georgia and Oklahoma State were atop the leaderboard. Georgia seems to win every year at Isleworth, a course tough enough for Tiger Woods to call home. Oklahoma State’s home course, Karsten Creek, is one of the toughest in the country, as evidenced by the Cowboys’ winning score of 17-over-par 881 at the NCAA South Central Regional two weeks ago.
“We like the challenge of hard courses,” said Georgia’s Russell Henley, who tied for low score on the team with an even-par 71. Neither team had a player shoot a sub-par round, but 73 was the highest score either team had to use.
The surprise of the day was San Diego, the last team to earn an at-large bid for the postseason. The Toreros shot 293 and are tied for fourth with Washington, another one of the pretournament favorites.
Chattanooga is starting to play more like the team that won its first two tournaments of the season, including the prestigious Carpet Capital Collegiate, than the one that finished 10th or worse in four of five stroke-play events in the middle of the season.
The Mocs have gone 2-1-3 in their past three starts, including a win at the Southern Conference Championship and third-place finish at the NCAA South Central Regional.
“We talked about getting off to a good start (at NCAAs),” head coach Mark Guhne said. “That’s one thing we didn’t do during that stretch in the middle of the year. We were always battling uphill.”
Chattanooga’s Fredrik Qvicker led the team with an even-par 71. Derek Rende shot 73, while Jonathan Hodge and Jaeger shot 74s.
Rende and Hodge are entering their third consecutive week of competition, having played the Tennessee Open in the week between regionals and the finals. Rende tied for 15th, while Hodge was 36th. Former Moc Bryce Ledford won the event.
The Mocs used one interesting tactic to take the early lead in the first round of the NCAA Division I Men’s Championship. They laid up on a par 3.
Stephan Jaeger, Rende and Hodge purposely hit short of the green on the par-3 third hole, which played 186 yards Tuesday, in order to avoid the lake right of the green. Jaeger and Rende got up-and-down for pars.
The third hole is the start of a brutal five-hole stretch. The Mocs’ four scorers played Nos. 3-7 in 10 over par en route to their 8-over 292, the low score of the morning wave.
“I think the key for anybody this week is playing Nos. 3-7 pretty well,” Chattanooga head coach Mark Guhne said. “You’re going to make bogeys there, but have to avoid the big numbers.”
Oklahoma State played those holes 9 over, while Georgia was only 1 over on the stretch.
“Those are definitely going to be the deciding factor this week,” Henley said. “Those holes are so long and the greens are not that big. Once you hit the fairway, you still have a lot of work to do.”
The same can be said for the eventual champion, whoever it may be. They still have to face two more rounds of stroke play before embarking on three rounds of match play.