Arkansas golf coach Brad McMakin thought the Blessings Golf Course would be the ultimate home advantage in the NCAA Fayetteville men's golf regional. It wasn't Thursday. Conditions were just too gentle.
"I think it was a little while into the day that we figured out how easy it was playing," said Sebastian Cappelen, the reigning SEC individual champ. "We got it going then."
Indeed, with no wind and the greens playing soft and a bit slower than normal after overnight storms, the Blessings was not its usual monster in the first round of the 54-hole event at Johnson.
Illinois opened with a blast of birdies and was as deep as 11-under as a team at one point early in the day. And, the host team was faltering at 6-over par as the five-man team entered the last six holes.
That's where the Hogs produced seven birdies and an eagle to fight back to a 2-over finish, eight shots back of team leader Illinois in fifth place. It was just enough to let McMakin think the Hogs could make a run over the last 36 holes.
"It was a roller coaster," McMakin said. "Actually we played pretty well. We came back from a triple and two doubles and I'm happy we got home to post 2-over. The guys hung in there. I'm not disappointed because of the way we finished."
Illinois posted scores of 65 and 68 -- a combined 11-under -- to post a team score of 282, 6-under on the 7,251-yard layout considered the toughest of any of the NCAA regionals.
The Illini, ranked 33rd, surprised when No. 5 entry Charlie Danielson ripped off the 65. It had to count a 77 when No. 4 man Alex Burge shot 84.
McMakin thinks there will be more scores like those two high numbers as the wind kicks up over the next two days at the Blessings, ultra tight and very tricky around the greens. Arkansas opens play at 8:20 a.m. Friday.
"We had lost eight or nine shots early in the day and I'm proud of the team for coming back," McMakin said. "I think we are in good shape because I think the wind is going to blow. That favors us."
It was the lack of wind that baffled Cappelen when he double bogeyed the 420-yard 13th. He hit it through the fairway at a place where he normally feels some wind.
"I don't usually hit driver there and I did today," he said. "I thought I felt the wind coming up and it didn't affect it at all."
Cappelen's tee shot sailed through the dogleg about 15 yards long. He was in the rough, amongst eight pine trees. He tried to thread the needle with an 85-yard sand wedge. It struck a pine trunk dead center and bounced behind him leaving him deeper in the trees and 115 yards away.
"The second shot was actually tougher," he said. "And I was surprised I went long."
Cappelen pitched back to the edge of the green and two putted for double. He birdied the 16th and 17th coming home, missing a short eagle putt on the 16th.
It was the par five 16th where the Hogs made their move. All four of their scorers hit the green in two shots. Austin Cook eagled from about 10 feet after nearly holing out from the fairway for a double eagle.
The big mover on the back nine was Thomas Sorensen. He birdied four of his last six holes to fight back from 6-over for a 74 counter.
"Obviously, we'd rather be in the lead than in fifth," said McMakin, noting the top five teams advance to the NCAA Championships. "But we've started slow all year. After what I saw today, I'm glad we are just fifth."
What McMakin saw was the Blessings playing easy on the greens.
"The greens were easier," he said. "With no winds and the greens soft, I saw lots of birdies. I saw lots of people hitting it close and making putts. We played with Texas and Oklahoma State and all I saw was players making putts."
Cappelen said the Hogs are in "OK shape. We got in a bad spot and were able to battle back. I'd rather be where we are than if we got there and couldn't battle back. I'd say overall, this was average for us. I don't think we are going to keep playing average.
"I think for us here, we are going to get at least one good day the rest of the tournament and that will be good enough to catch some teams. I think there are some teams that are going to do worse than average here on out with some wind."
The Hogs counted 72s from Cappelen, Cook and Taylor Moore and Sorenson's 74. Nicholas Echevarria was the throw out at 76, but he battled back, too. He played the last four holes in 2-under par.
Defending national champ Texas is at second at 285, two back of Illinois and five better than the Hogs. Oklahoma State, behind Jordan Niebrugge's 67, is third at 286. Kent State is at 288.
Colorado is two back of the Hogs at 292, but the host team is seven shots better than the rest of the field.
Moore, the SEC co-freshman of the year from Edmond, Okla., thought the Hogs could have done better. No one went low.
"I would say we're a little bit disappointed," Moore said. "Kind of a roller coaster day. But I mean, we're only seven, eight shots back as a team. That can be made up in nine holes and we've still got 36 left. We know this course pretty well. I feel like we're in decent position."
Moore said he had to fight through some jitters early in the day, and the strong finish helped provide some confidence for the last 36 holes. The Hogs may have felt some pressure with so many school friends and family in the gallery. The Hogs rarely play at home.
"Yeah, that was good," he said. "I think … I know for me I had a little bit of nerves the first couple holes.
"I think it was tied with everybody being out here and being on our home course. Putting a little bit too much pressure on ourselves. But at the end of the day it's still a golf tournament. Still got to go out there and hit golf shots, which we did coming in and we kind of saved it from a bad round happening."
Cook had the eagle at No. 16, but was equally proud of an 8-foot par save after missing the green well left on the 18th.
"It was good to have a nice finish," Cook said. "I was playing great until I had one hole that I messed up on and besides that, I'm really happy with my round. Coming in and making that last putt there is going to put a lot of confidence going into tomorrow."
The wind was non-existent after evening storms raked the course.
"No there was not (any wind)," Cook said. "I was kind of surprised, especially with the storm that came in last night. I was thinking there was going to be more wind. But hopefully it picks up tomorrow, dries this place out a little bit and makes it a little tougher to play."
Cook said the Hogs know things even out at the Blessings and that they will have an advantage when things toughen.
"The results of round one don't really affect our confidence on this course because we play it so much. it's our home course," he said. "I think all of our guys are very confident on this course and very comfortable on this course."
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