McMakin: Hogs Building Greatness

Arkansas heads to NCAA Championships with more than a blueprint for a championship golf program at Blessings Golf Club. They leave behind some construction for the nation's best facility.

Now I understand why Sebastian Cappelen wants to hang around at Arkansas past the expiration of his eligibility. You can see it coming out of the ground at The Blessings Golf Club.

There it was coming out of the ground where the old putting green was next to the UA's golf practice facility at John Tyson's fabulous course in Johnson. It's the Dave Pelz Indoor Short Game Facility, that will add to an already fine facility with indoor hitting bays. New locker rooms will be added where the old coaches offices were in that facility.

There will be indoor putting and chipping areas in the new building, started about two weeks ago. Cappelen, the Hogs' number one men's golfer, just smiles.

It won't be needed as the Hogs prepare for Friday's opening round of the NCAA Championships at Prairie Dunes in Hutchinson, Kan. The weather is perfect this week in the Ozarks.

But it would have been handy this winter when the Hogs were stuck inside all the way until the middle of March with snow, ice and rainy conditions. They didn't get outside at home until just three weeks ahead of the SEC tournament.

"We were unlucky this winter and could have used it," Cappelen said. "It makes me and the rest of the team so happy to see it out of the ground now. It would have been a huge help in those February tournaments, probably helping us scramble a little better."

Arkansas coach Brad McMakin said the home facilities "were already nice anyway, but we'll now have the Taj Mahal of college golf now. Now, you gotta have the bells and whistles because college golf is so big, so competitive. John Tyson understood that. He's taken care of us."

There's actually two new facilities going up at The Blessings. There's the short game practice building, and an outside area about 100 yards away for wedge play. It was also designed by short game guru Dave Pelz.

"It's all fantastic," McMakin said. "Dave said if I'm putting my name on it, you'll have the best one anywhere. I know that's true, too. Nothing will compare to it."

The Hogs will be in their state-of-the-art facility in the middle of October. McMakin would like nothing better than to have some new NCAA trophies to display. He thinks the Hogs can do it this weekend at Prairie Dunes.

Arkansas is the 15th seed, jumping about 10 spots after a second-place showing with a three-day total of 28-under par at the Columbia, Mo., Regional last week, five shots behind No. 2 Oklahoma State. The Hogs shot 18-under in the second round at Columbia, their best ever in postseason play.

"Like I've been saying, we are very explosive," McMakin said. "We go to Prairie Dunes knowing we can beat any team in the country. We've beat all of the top rated teams -- Alabama, Oklahoma State and all of the others -- in single rounds. We just need to do it in three rounds."

Actually, they just need to do enough over 54 holes to finish in the top 10. They were 10th last year, narrowly missing out of the eight-team match play field that will decide the national championship.

McMakin changed up his lineup, trying to find a hot round out of their No. 5 man at Prairie Dunes. Senior Blake Biddle, a UNLV transfer, joins Cappelen, sophomore Taylor Moore, sophomore Kolton Crawford and Nicolas Echavarria in the lineup for the NCAA.

Biddle had an up-and-down fall for the Hogs, but has been out in the spring after an appendectomy. He's full speed now and McMakin thinks he might provide the difference.

"Blake is great at match play," McMakin said. "He finished second at the U.S. Amateur. So the format fits him if we can get through.

"And, he's capable of going low. Our top four are pretty consistent. What Blake could do is give us that one low score somewhere along the way that could push us through.

"He's capable of that. He is really playing well right now and is healthy. So we wanted to try this and it could be all we need."

Bittle is not one of the longer hitters on the team, but he has some weapons.

"It's his short game, putting and chipping," McMakin said. "He's got a PGA Tour short game. And he's experienced. He can't hit it long, but he's a grinder and this is a grinder's tournament.

"The key for him is for him to be able to find his ball. When he hits it in the fairway, he can go low because he is that kind of a putter.

"Our guys love him and they are excited he's going. Blake has a way of exploding a round. We took him to Crooked Stick in the fall and he shot 80-69-78 and you don't like those high numbers, but it was that 69 that we counted that helped us win the tournament. He'll give us something somewhere in the tournament."

Finding it at Prairie Dunes is the key. A famous Perry Maxwell layout in the Kansas sand dunes, Prairie Dunes looks like it could be taken right out of Scotland. The hard part is finding the line off the tee, sometimes blind shot over rolling hills.

"You have to be really solid in picking your line and then committing to it," McMakin said. "Our guys went up there one month ago and played it. That's why we went, to work on finding the lines off the tee."

It's likely going to be conditions the Hogs love, heavy wind. It always blows at Prairie Dunes.

"We want that," McMakin said. "Guys like Sebastian want par to be worth something. I'm not sure he liked what we had at Columbia where it was all about putting. He's great tee to green and this should be his kind of course."

The Hogs are also happy to be playing on bent grass greens. They played bermuda all spring and that's not their strength.

"Our guys are excited," McMakin said. "They played well at Columbia and that was bent greens, too. They have a lot of confidence. We've had good practices and we are ready.

"All our guys are playing well. Kolton is playing out of sight."

Crawford finished second in a U.S. Open local qualifying on Monday following the Byron Nelson in the Dallas area.

"They had a lot of professionals there," McMakin said. "Kolton really played well. He's hitting it as well as we've ever seen him."

Crawford made a swing change that clicked about one month ago.

"He has always drawn the ball and we convinced him to go to a fade," McMakin said. "I don't know if anyone can beat him right now. He'd played that draw all of his life and now he's really looking good with that fade."

Crawford said it was a tough conversion.

"It's just tough to look up and see it now," he said. "I've always looked for it to move right to left and now it's going left to right. That's a big change."

The key is that there isn't a lot of movement left to right.

"It's just with my irons," he said. "It's the way it falls now. My draw would move 10 yards. My fade might move only five yards, and that's with the irons. My eyes just weren't used to that, but it's starting to look right."

Like with most of the Hogs, it's not the ball striking. They are one of the best in the country tee to green.

"The ball striking is not an issue," Crawford said. "If I get the putter rolling, that's the issue."

Prairie Dunes is a ball striker's course, but there is freedom to play run-up shots like in Scotland.

"Our guys like that," McMakin said. "We work hard on playing low shots. That's why we play well in the wind. We want it to blow out there and it will. It always does."

Crawford agrees with that.

"It's going to be a little windy out there, maybe real windy," he said. "You can't miss fairways out there. It's tall grass. We want it to be tough conditions."

Cappelen said, "Last week was a little fun, just going for birdie every hole. I like that from time to time, but it was really kind of strange. The average for the field there -- for all players -- was 71. That's not normal.

"For me, I like it where the conditions are tough and you gain something on the field for making the right decision off the tee. Maybe it's not just about who makes putts, but who gets it in play with the right decision off the tee."

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