Three days are now in the books at the Golden Horseshoe Gold Course for the 2007 Men's Golf NCAA Championship. For the third straight day, Stanford is all by itself atop the leaderboard. The Cardinal are king through 54 holes at 12-under, after shooting five-under on the third day. Stanford's four counting scores came from senior Zack Miller (-3), junior Rob Grube (-1), sophomore Daniel Lim (-1) and freshman Joseph Bramlett (E).
"It was an up and down day," says head coach Conrad Ray. "Today I camped out on the par-threes, and it was a lot more stressful. We started out pretty slow with a couple of bogeys on the first few holes and kind of just hung in there. The guys just played solid. It was a good day."
That stress for Stanford started right out of the gate, with the Cardinal carding three bogeys on the first hole. Some holes on this Williamsburg (Va.) course are more difficult than others, but #1 had been benign through the first two days for Stanford - no bogeys, loads of pars and two birdies. That was not the case Friday, with Grube, Lim and Bramlett each recording a bogey on the 402-yard par-four opening hole.
"It was into the wind, and it had a tough pin tucked just over the bunker," Ray explains of Stanford's sudden difficulty Friday on #1. "We got off to a slow start, but we had a good rebound."
Lim bogeyed #2 but then birdied three of the next four holes. Bramlett recorded par on the remainder of the front nine. Grube had par or birdies the rest of the front nine. Slowly, Stanford started to lower its score.
Meanwhile, third-place Coastal Carolina rocketed up the board. The Chanticleers were in the same first grouping with Stanford and second-place Minnesota, who was 14-over on Friday and at 20 strokes back are now out of contention. Coastal Carolina was as hot as Minnesota was cold, at one point shooting 12-under on the day and standing six strokes ahead of Stanford. The Chanticleers came back down to earth, however, while the Cardinal climbed.
For nervous fans watching what momentarily appeared to be the end of Stanford's reign atop the leaderboard, the sight of Coastal Carolina catapulting well ahead of the Cardinal was crushing. The Stanford players were unphased.
"The guys are somewhat sheltered from the scores, so they did a good job of worrying about their own ball and continuing to fight," Ray offers. "Hats off to [Coastal Carolina] for a solid round."
The Chanticleers faded on the back nine, but they still shot eight-under for the day and moved to within two strokes of Stanford at 10-under for the tournament. Considering how deep and talented this year's NCAA field was hyped to be, there is a remarkable lack of contenders near these top two. Only two other teams in the tournament are under par, with Charlotte and Alabama both tied for third place at two-under.
That sets up what is likely to be a two-horse race in the final round Saturday between the Card and 'Cleers, though scores can rise and fall quickly in team golf. The scoring format throws out the highest number of the five players on each team, with the other four scores counting. For evidence of how quickly fortunes can turn in this format, look no further than #1-ranked Georgia. The Bulldogs experienced a 20-point swing between their second day (nine-over) and third day (11-under).
Stanford is the only school in this 30-team field to shoot under par every day of these NCAAs, but the worm could turn on the Cardinal if they don't stay on their game.
"Really, one or 15 shots in team golf is not that much," Ray admits. "This is still anyone's tournament, but I like our chances."
"The guys have not played their best team round yet, and I hope it comes tomorrow," the coach continues. "Confidence and trust are the keys. There have been a lot of reason why we should have both."
Stanford is not at all a surprise to be sitting in the lead in this tournament. The Cardinal have been ranked #1 or #2 all year, and they have won an eye-popping six tournaments.
"The guys have a lot of confidence," Ray says. "We've got some seniors leading the way, and Rob Grube has been playing better. It's been nice to be able to pick up a few wins and kind of feel the heat of the battle a few times. Hopefully that will pay off for us tomorrow."
In the lead heading into the final day of the tournament, the Cardinal are in the best position Saturday to bring home the school's first National Championship since 1994. The mere feat of making it to the final day of play is an accomplishment not seen in more than a decade. Stanford only twice in the last 10 years has played as a team in the NCAAs, and both times they failed to make the 15-team cut. The Cardinal were 18th in 2005, Ray's first year as head coach, and 20th in 2001. Not since the Tiger Woods era has Stanford contended for a title, finishing fourth in 1996 and second in 1995.
Grube is tied for first place on the individual leaderboard at six-under, which primes an even rarer piece of Stanford Men's Golf history. The team has won seven NCAA Championships, but only twice ever has a Stanford man been crowned an individual NCAA Champion. Woods of course won as a sophomore in 1996, shortly before turning pro and setting the PGA on fire. The only other individual champ was Sandy Tatum in 1942. The field chasing that trophy on Saturday will be crowded however, with 13 individuals tied for the lead or within three strokes.
One of those is a teammate of Grube's. Miller is tied for eighth overall at four-under, just two strokes off the lead. The senior has been a quietly steady performer for the Cardinal this week, though it took his three-under on Friday to finally draw attention. Miller was Stanford's low scorer, recording four birdies and just one bogey.
"He has been a rock mentally. Any sort of adversity has been like water off a duck's back," comments his coach. "He has come up huge, and it's neat to see that he has a chance for the big prize."
"I'm very happy with how I've played," Miller admits. "The course has gotten tougher as the tournament has progressed. We've worked really hard all year, and it's exciting for the team to be in this position. We'll be ready to play tomorrow."
Ray outlines four keys to victory for the Cardinal, playing on the last day of their heralded nine-month season:
- No 'others'
- Have fun!
The "others" refers to posting big numbers, which was something that plagued the Cardinal a few too many times during their up-and-down third day. Four different Stanford players, three of which were counters, put up big numbers (double-bogey or worse). Coastal Carolina by contrast had just one big number, and that came from their non-counter. The Cardinal know the competition on Saturday won't allow for another day with many mistakes.
"It was a few swings here and there and some tricky breeze," Ray explains of Friday's big numbers. "If we can minimize these tomorrow we will be in better shape."
"Hopefully the guys had their toughest day today," he adds. "It wasn't pretty at times out there. We had some balls in the water and a couple of big numbers, but the guys were able to fight hard. That's kind of been the story of this team, too. They just don't give up, which is great. It's fun to coach guys like that."
The 10th and 12th holes continue to be the bugaboo for Stanford at Golden Horseshoe. Bramlett posted a double-bogey on 10, his only hole over par in the final 17. More distressing was the triple-bogey by Grube on 12, which ground to a halt a magnificent day where he was four-under through 11 holes. That pesky little 188-yard par-three has taken three Stanford players for a ride already this week and is at the top of the danger list in Saturday's finale.
"Hit it anywhere on the green off the tee," Ray instructs on how to beat #12. "You miss the green, and it brings 'big number' into play."
Stanford on Friday did show the resiliency of a champion, when they rallied at the end of the day after their hiccups. The two-stroke lead that the Cardinal hold over Coastal Carolina can be pinned on the last two of the 54 holes played in these NCAAs: #17 and #18 on Friday. Stanford shot five-under with five birdies from their counters, while Coastal Carolina was just two-under. That three-stroke surge pushed Stanford back into the lead.
"Patience and good putting - I like the combo!" Ray smiles.
Saturday's narrowed field will include the top 15 teams plus six individuals. For the second straight day, Stanford will play in the top grouping, which will again include Coastal Carolina. Also joining the top two leaders is Charlotte. Prior to this grouping, the trio of Alabama, Georgia and Georgia Tech will tee off, as will the individual competitors. Then at 9:21 A.M. (EDT) Joseph Bramlett in Group 8 will start play. Following will be Matt Savage, Daniel Lim, Zack Miller and finally at 9:57 A.M. Rob Grube.
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