Birdie Show Gives Hogs Lead

Austin Cook leads an Arkansas birdie show in the NCAA Fayetteville Regional on Friday at the Blessings Golf Club. The Hogs took the team lead, one better than Illinois. Cook's 68 helped him to the share of the individual lead ahead of the final day.

Fog delayed Arkansas for 30 minutes, but the birdie onslaught began soon afterwards as the host school tried to lap the field Friday at the Blessings Golf Club.

On a day when everyone thought the pins were tucked on the difficult Johnson course, the No. 12 Razorbacks put on a birdie show to vault into the 36-hole lead with a 3-under, two-day team score.

The Razorbacks recorded 21 birdies -- 19 from their four counting players -- to take a one-shot lead into the final round. They trailed Illinois by eight shots on Thursday, but no one could keep pace with them on an 80-degree, beautiful day.

Arkansas shot 5-under 283, wiping out the three leaders from Thursday. Illinois, playing in the lead group just back of the Hogs, slipped back to 574 after a 292. Defending NCAA champ Texas wilted with a 298 for 583 and Oklahoma State slumped to 304 for 590. The top five teams advance from regional play.

Senior Austin Cook -- king at the Blessings among his teammates in qualifying rounds the last four years -- did what he does on a daily basis. The Jonesboro product cruised to a bogey-free, 4-under 68 and grabbed a share of the individual lead at 140.

Freshman Nicholas Echavarria, added to the lineup after sitting out the SEC tournament, made six birdies en route to a sparkling 70. Fellow frosh Taylor Moore shot his second straight 72, Sebastian Cappelen shot 73, despite a bogey-bogey finish for the final counting score.

The Hogs posted five straight birdies at the par five 16th -- missing three eagle putts -- to get their team score to 8-under for the day. They added birdies from Cook and Echavarria on the 240-yard par three 17th in what looked like chances for a hole-in-ones before three bogeys at the 18th brought them back from an other-worldly kind of team score.

Arkansas coach Brad McMakin didn't even mind the late bogeys. He was proud of the way his team attacked their home course and avoided the big numbers with their few off-line tee shots. The Hogs had to count two doubles and a triple on Thursday, but avoided disasters except for Cappelen's double on the first hole.

McMakin noted the Hogs have not three-putted through 36 holes and warned that they still haven't had a fast start. He said their mission for the 36 holes was to make it into the lead group in Saturday's final round and they'll do that with the lead.

"It doesn't get much better than that," McMakin said. "It was a little disappointing with three bogeys at No. 18, but that's a difficult hole. Yesterday we made a couple of bad swings and made a bad score on those holes, but we didn't do that today. We haven't had any three-putts in the tournament. And we've counted only two scores over par so far. That's phenomenal, fantastic here. It's a hard course.

"Austin Cook was nearly flawless today. He didn't have a bogey and with where the pins were today, that's fantastic. He was 4-under and had a putt at 18 that sure looked like it was going in (for another birdie)."

How do you feel?

"A lot better than yesterday," McMakin said. "We are going to be in the lead group. That's where we wanted to be on the last day. It's our home course. We should have an advantage with all of our guys playing well. We can make a run at (the tournament win).

"The difference between yesterday and today, when we got in a little trouble, we just made a bogey. We didn't make those big numbers like yesterday. We got a little momentum going late yesterday and I think that carried over today -- but I still don't think we've had a good start either day."

On putting Echavarria into the lineup after sitting out the SEC, McMakin said it was about his experience in big tournaments.

"He's played almost every tournament," McMakin said. "He has done well in big events. He won the U.S. Junior so it was his experience in big tournaments."

McMakin said scores were higher Friday because of more difficult pin settings. The wind still hasn't been more than enough to lift the flags away from the pins either day.

"The scores were higher because they tucked them pretty good," he said. "But we made birdies, especially Nicholas and Austin. Those two lapped the field today and Taylor (Moore) played good, too."

Cook thought he aced the 17th hole, a 240-yard downhill par three over Clear Creek. His No. 3 iron hit about five feet in front of the cup, rolled over the lip and stopped eight feet behind the cup. The gallery jumped as it went by.

"I thought it went in," Cook said. "I really did. It disappeared in the shadow and I thought it was (a hole-in-one) because the gallery was jumping up and down."

Cook said it wasn't his best-ever round at the Blessings, but 68 in an NCAA event might beat a lower score in qualifying rounds.

"I knew yesterday was not my best and it was still 72," he said. "So last night I had the feeling that if a bad round was 72, that if I played good, I'd be fine."

Cappelen might have been the pre-tournament favorite with many because he was coming off the SEC individual crown. But most of the UA golfers, coaches and supporters who know Cook's low scores in practice at the Blessings thought he might be the winner.

"I'd had a lot of people tell me they were betting on me," Cook said. "I've played here four years and I know it really well. I probably put too much pressure on myself yesterday. I tried to make it just another day today. I have a lot of friends and family here and you want to do well in front of them because rarely do they get to come see you play. But today for me was just a regular day and it went pretty well.

"As far as winning, I did come in thinking I could. I like this track a lot. I've learned how to play it. It makes you play golf, but you get a feel for it after awhile, what you can do with some holes. I do like my chances."

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