UM golfers improve standing on day 2 of NCAA

ALPHARETTA, Ga. - Senior golfer Chris Rogers smiled broadly and jogged over to the scorer's tent at the end of his round early on Friday afternoon. Birdies on 18 will do that to you.

That was the case for almost the entire Rebel golf team on the final hole of the second round of the NCAA East Regional here. The Rebels ate No. 18 alive.

After senior Brice Bailey parred 18 (he already had his highlight final hole moment on the front nine at No. 9 when he chipped in for birdie from the fringe, guess-timated at 100 feet), junior David Marino eagled the par five 18th. The hole features a major downhill tee shot and an approach - either on one's second or third shot depending on the player's bravery - over water.

No problem for these Rebels. After Marino's eagle, sophomore Will Roebuck, Rogers, and senior Callum Macaulay all birdied it as the Rebels played that particular hole 5-under par.

The Rebs needed every one of them, too. After an admittedly rough first day when they shot 21-over par as a team at the beautiful Golf Club of Georgia's Lakeside Course, they shot just 9-over on day two. Not stellar by this field's standard but a whole lot better.

At times on day two, it appeared they might limp into the clubhouse and not have anything left to play for in Saturday's final round but pride - which they have shown all season they have a lot of.

But they dug down deep and finished strong, and now Saturday looks a whole lot more inviting than it had just an hour or so before they wrapped up 36 holes with 18 to go.

"You see 'em over there laughing and talking. Finishing with three birdies and an eagle will do that," said Ole Miss head coach Ernest Ross after the team posed for a picture in front of the NCAA scoreboard, one they will likely hang in the Whitten Golf Center at Ole Miss and also use in the media guide next season. "We're in a lot better frame of mind than this time yesterday, and really than when we started today. That last hole gave us a real lift. That's the way golf can be. Sometimes your last shot can determine your mood for a round. That seems to be the case today."

Ole Miss men's golf hasn't been in this position at all since 2001. None of these particular Rebels had ever played in the NCAA Tournament. There were some nerves that might have been a little haywire on Thursday in round one.

"We probably put a little too much pressure on ourselves," said Macaulay, who improved seven shots from day one - from a 79 to a solid even par round of 72. "We didn't play as good as we can, and that was frustrating for all of us. This is a big stage, and we'll hopefully come out tomorrow and play even better."

"I don't think there's any doubt about it. We just put too much pressure on ourselves as individuals," said Ross, as a good coach will do, sharing some of the load for any shortcomings his team might have incurred.

Ross has been here before, on this important stage called the NCAA Tournament. But not since 1985 during his first tenure as head coach of the Rebs had he walked the postseason fairways with an Ole Miss golf team as its leader. A lot has changed since then. More teams are good. The competition is tougher. The attention from media and fans has increased. But the excitement is still the same.

"Hopefully this is a growing experience as we watch and learn what we have to do on a great golf course like this," Ross said. "The greens are so fast. Players are making putts everywhere, and you try to match them shot for shot. That makes for some pressure. You really shouldn't try to play against the other player. You instinctively try to it seems. We'll get better from this."

But there is one day left. Ross, whose team finished just after lunchtime Friday, was hoping for more difficult conditions for those in the afternoon so the scores would rise. Only the top 10 teams advance to the National Championship tournament in Williamsburg, Va.

"I wish the wind would pick up a little bit this afternoon to make the golf course a little tougher," said Ross, noting that it was windy and tougher Thursday afternoon when his team played its first round than it was Friday morning. "The greens are getting dried out and faster, so hopefully that will happen."

Although the final scores from today had yet to be posted by the last teams still on the course, it was fairly apparent the Rebels would finish two rounds somewhere in the mid to late teens in this field of 27. Top 10 is still within reach, but a long reach.

"We'll have to play well tomorrow, but we've still got a shot," Ross said.

When this school year began, just being in the NCAA field was all the Rebels could have hoped for. Now if they don't make it to the championship tourney, they'll be disappointed.

"Obviously we've got a lot of work to do, especially after the first round," Macaulay said. "We played terrible yesterday. The field's so strong here, there's no room for error. We'll go out there and give it our best again tomorrow."

Two-day scores for the Rebs have been Marino 75-75--150; Macaulay 79-72--151; Rogers 76-76--152; Roebuck 80-74--154; Bailey 79-79--158.

Ole Miss assistant coach Jonathan Dismuke said the Rebels picked it up today and the conditions helped as well.

"We got off to an OK start today, but we had that good finish," he said. "That last hole helped us salvage the round and gives us some momentum for tomorrow. We'll have to play our best tomorrow to advance."

This is a Rebel team that led the SEC Tournament after the first round before finishing fourth in that strong field. They are capable.

"Today we all felt better about things," said Rogers, who was 4-over par after six holes Friday and was even par the final 12 holes for a 76. "I think that showed up in our play. It means a ton for us to be here, and we want to have a strong final round on Saturday."

And hopefully with more of those sprints to the scorer's tent after an eagle or a birdie on the final hole - and of course with a trip to Williamsburg in their near future.

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