Florida's Andy Zhang (UF photo)
KISSIMMEE, FL (May 15, 2018) - The par-5 14th hole at the Watson Course is a dogleg left hole with condos and out of bounds left of the cart path. Some trees and elevation hide the green and most of the latter half of the hole, so players unfamiliar with the course often misjudge how much to cut the dogleg.
Florida sophomore Andy Zhang is not one of those players. Zhang, who grew up at Reunion Resort crushed a drive Tuesday at No. 14 that not only cut the dogleg but hit the cart path, leaving Zhang just a sand wedge for his second shot on the 525-yard hole.
“A lot of guys probably don’t know that you need to take it that far left and he knew that,” Gators head coach J.C. Deacon said.
Zhang birdied the hole, one of three straight birdies from Nos. 13-15 in Round 2, and went on to shoot a second consecutive 4-under 68. At 8 under, he shares the lead with two other Orlando-area products, UCF’s Kyler Tate of Winter Garden and North Carolina’s Austin Hitt of Lake Mary.
“It’s my home course,” Zhang said. “I think I’ve played this course more than any other course in my life.”
When Zhang moved from China to Orlando when he was 10 years old, his family rented a house along the Watson Course’s 12th hole. The family eventually bought a house on the fourth hole. (The Zhangs moved out to Winter Garden a few years ago, but still kept their house at Reunion.)
Zhang estimates he’s played close to 500 rounds at Reunion, including 300 or so on the Watson. His first tournament on the Watson was a Canadian Junior Tour event when he was 12, and he’s teed it up in a few Moonlight Tour events here, as well.
“It’s been fun watching him enjoy himself,” Deacon said.
It helps that Zhang is playing well. As are his Gator teammates. Florida is 25 under through 36 holes and leads by five shots. Deacon typically prefers tougher courses, but he can’t complain with his team’s performance so far.
“There’s just not a lot of courses we see like this,” Deacon said. “We do have some courses at home, lucky enough, where we do have to go really low in qualifying. … We’ve had some 20-under qualifiers this year, so we’re prepared, and the guys, they’re playing great.”
UCF, the No. 10 seed and tournament host, is second behind the Gators and further proof that course knowledge can go a long way. The Knights have played more than 20 rounds out at Reunion in the past year and many of UCF’s players are familiar with the grasses and style of golf that Orlando is known for.
“Maybe it’s just something in the water around Orlando,” Tate quipped. “But no, it’s kind of a typical Orlando resort course. That’s probably why we’ve played so well. It’s almost like a home course for us. We know where to hit it, we know what to hit off the tees, we know the greens, and the biggest thing is we’re comfortable.”
In a pressure cooker like an NCAA regional, comfort is key.
Colorado State is playing a long way from home, yet the Rams, the No. 8 seed, are tied for fifth entering the final round thanks to a second-round 11-under 277. No. 4 guy Jack Ainscough led Colorado State on Tuesday with a 4-under 68, eight shots better than his Round-1 score.
Kent State is third thanks in large part to having three players in the top 6 – Ian Holt (T-4), Chase Johnson (T-6) and Gisli Sveinbergsson (T-6). The Golden Flashes actually have some past experience on the Watson Course. They played an alumni event here two years ago on an alumni trip.
Top-seeded Vanderbilt is tied for fifth, as well. The Commodores, who advanced to the NCAA semifinals last season, haven’t gotten the best play from Theo Humphrey (T-32) and John Augenstein (T-46), but Patrick Martin is T-6 and Will Gordon survived a triple on the par-5 eighth to shoot 1-under 71 and sit T-18 after 36 holes.
St. Mary’s was the only school to make a substitution in Round 2, switching Ash Hakim (76 in Round 1) for Mikey Slesinksi, who made two eagles Tuesday to shoot even-par 72. The Gaels, though, are 12th as a team and 16 shots out of the top 5.
ROUND ONE RECAP
UCF took advantage of their home course advantage, shooting a 12-under 276 and taking the first round lead at the NCAA Southeast Regional at the Reunion Resort.
Two Golden Knights grabbed a share of the individual lead. Juuso Hahlos, a senior from Finland, made 6 birdies in a round of 5-under 67, while teammate Bobby Bai, a sophomore from China, matched the score with 6 birdies and an eagle.
Skies were threatening all day, with rain interrupting play early for just over an hour.
Joining Kahlos and Bai in the individual lead were George Cunningham of Arizona and Chase Johnson of Kent State. The wet course gave up low scores and produced a crowded leaderboard, with 15 players in the 60s and with 2 shots of the lead.
The University of Florida is also enjoying playing close to home, and matched UCF's score of 12 under to share the lead. Gordon Neale (68), Andy Zhang (68) and John Axelsen (69) led the Gators and are all in contention for the individual title.
Johnson's 67 helped Kent State get into third place at 8-under 280. Traveling south to play on bermuda grass is almost always an issue for northern golf teams, and the Golden Flashes are indeed the only team in the top 8 that doesn't play primarily on bermuda.
South Florida is fourth at 6 under, while Vanderbilt and North Carolina are tied for fifth at 3 under.
The top 5 teams will advance to the NCAA Championship at Karsten Creek Golf Club in Stillwater, OK.