STILLWATER, Okla. — On Memorial Day for 2011 the field of 30 teams and six individuals got a taste of treacherous Karsten Creek Golf Club, host of the NCAA Division I Men’s Golf Championships this week.
Treacherous is a word used when the wind isn’t blowing.
“I don’t think 6 ½ hours is enough,” lamented one coach as his team left the course after Monday’s practice round.
A common theme among many players was “It’s going to be a long week.”
“(Today) was pretty windy,” said UCLA head coach Derek Freeman. “I can’t imagine it blowing too much harder the rest of the week. On a course like (Karsten) you are going to hit some bad shots and pay the price, but you are also going to hit some really good shots and be a bit unlucky at times.
“You have to accept that the wind is going to change some of your shots.”
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Ten squads competing in the 54-hole stroke play and three rounds of match play teed it up back in September for the Ping/Golfweek Preview. Course conditions are not like night and day but late-May and early-June Oklahoma winds provide a different challenge as opposed to the cooler temperatures of September.
“A low 9, a high 8,” said Oklahoma State’s Peter Uihlein in regards to the strength of wind on a scale of 1 to 10. “It’s windy but we’ve played when it was blowing harder.
“The only difference, I think, is the rough. Visually it’s the same … the greens are about the same speed. But with this rough you are going to be chipping out a lot of the time instead of going for greens.”
The wind, in midday, can also change directions.
“There isn’t a wind direction we haven’t seen at this point,” added Uihlein. “It changes directions in the middle of a round sometimes … you just have to be aware of it on every shot.”
Oklahoma State head coach Mike McGraw has one recommendation: hit it in the fairway.
“The rough is the biggest difference,” he said. “The speed of the greens is about the same but that could change this week. The rough, you could control just about anything down to a 4-iron in the fall. With the way the rough is now anything below an 8-iron and you probably can’t be too sure of how it is going to come out. I’d play to the fairway, that’s what I’d do.”
UCLA finished second to Oklahoma State at The Preview, shooting rounds of 12-over 300, 1-under 287 and 7-over 295. The hosts won the event with a 14-over total.
Bruin sophomore Pontus Widegren shot a final round 3-under 69 to earn medalist honors. Entering the week UCLA freshman Patrick Cantlay is the top-ranked individual after a stellar three rounds at last week’s San Diego Regional. His first round at Karsten was 79 but he rebounded with 71-74 to finish tied for 21st at The Preview.
Junior Gregor Main won an AJGA event on this course in 2007.
Freeman led the Bruins to the 2008 NCAA Championship and knows a thing or two about the Oklahoma wind. He was an All-Big 8 player for the University of Oklahoma and coached the Oklahoma City University women’s team to a NAIA title in 2005. Prior to college Freeman played on an Edmond Memorial team coached by McGraw.
Freeman will try and keep a freshman, two sophomores and two juniors in mental lockdown mode for a week.
“I know what it’s like to play in this wind so I can help them a little,” said Freeman. “But we have some guys on the team who’ve had some success on this course so I think there is a bit of confidence going into the week.
“It’s about controlling your emotions, staying focused. It can be a short week but we want to play well in stroke play and take our chances in the match play if possible.”
Oklahoma State’s powerful five will be tough to beat, considering the added knowledge of wind whistling through the tree-lined fairways. Monday’s practice round was just another day on the course for the Cowboys.
“This course is a lot more intimidating for the guys who haven’t played here before,” said OSU’s Morgan Hoffman. “It’s tough to get a feel for things in just one day.”
“What a special opportunity we have to come here and defend our title on such a daunting golf course,” said Augusta State head coach Josh Gregory, the 2010 NCAA champions. “We know the course will play a lot tougher than it did in the fall during the Preview. We’re ready for the challenge and to be competing again at this level.”
The Jaguars tied for fourth with Texas A&M last September. Gregory’s squad will try and become the first program since Houston to repeat.
• Ask anyone and they will tell you Oklahoma State is the best team in the field. That being said, however, the Cowboys may have had the best team the last two years but failed to close out the match play after strong showings in stroke play.
After cruising to the Colorado Regional title last week, the top-ranked Cowboys roll into the NCAA Championships with three of the top 15 players – Peter Uihlein, Kevin Tway and Morgan Hoffman – plus freshman Talor Gooch and sophomore Sean Einhaus, who finished 3-4 at the Regional.
The Cowboys have won 10 national titles, won eight tournaments in 2010-11 and are on their home course. Would you go against them?
• No. 4 UCLA finished four shots behind OSU at the Ping/Golfweek Preview last September with Widegren earning medalist. The Bruins also played well the last time the NCAA Championships were in Stillwater, finishing six shots behind Clemson and four shots behind Oklahoma State. UCLA has three players among the top 50 led by No. 1 Patrick Cantlay.
• No. 2 Georgia Tech finished seventh at The Preview, shooting a final round 19-over 307. Of the Yellowjackets’ 15 rounds only two were under par. That was then, however.
Tech’s season includes three wins and a runner-up showing at the East Regional. Only twice has Bruce Heppler’s charges been outside the top 5 in 2010-11. Kyle Scott, JT Griffin and James White are all ranked inside the top 15. In 25 appearances in the NCAA finals Tech has never claimed a championship.
• Alabama enters the week ranked third but is only making a 12th appearance in the finals. The Tide did not qualify in 2010 but start three freshmen this season led by Houston native Cory Whitsett, who is ranked 10th. Junior Bud Cauley is ranked fourth with a third starter, rookie Bobby Wyatt, also inside the top 50.
• Fifth-ranked Florida has three inside the top 20 – Bank Vongvanij, Phillip Choi and Andres Echavarria – is making its 48th NCAA finals appearance and has won four titles, the last coming in 2001.
• 2010 champion Augusta State enters the week ranked eighth. No team has repeated as Division I champion since Houston did so in 1984 and ’85.
• Two seasons ago Texas A&M entered the tournament ranked outside the top 10. But the Aggies beat Arkansas 3-2 for its first championship. In 2011, the Aggies enter the week ranked sixth with two players inside the top 50 – Jordan Russell (19) and Ignacio Elvira (43).
• No. 7 Illinois is making its 18th NCAA finals appearance. The Illini’s top finish was fourth in 1941. However, 2010 medalist Scott Langley is back and Luke Guthrie enters the week ranked 19th.
• A handful of others are certainly in the mix. LSU? Texas? Southern California? 2005 champion Georgia? What about Oklahoma, ranked 23rd, and playing on a rival course?
We will know less than six days from now.
Did You Know
Illinois’ Scott Langley topped the 156-player field in 2010 with a 10-under-par 206 total, edging San Diego’s Alex Ching and Oklahoma State’s Peter Uihlein by two shots. The last player to win back-to-back NCAA individual titles was Arizona State’s Phil Mickelson in 1989 and ’90. Lefty also won in ’92.
Question of the Week
When was the last time an individual earned medalist on his home course? Golfweek college golf guru Ron Balicki, making his 27th consecutive appearance at an NCAA finals, is among those digging deep into the archives to find this one.
Karsten Creek began hosting AJGA events in 2006. Stanford’s Andrew Yun edged Texas A&M’s Conrad Shindler at the 2006 PING Invitational. Rickie Fowler, Tadd Fujikawa, Uihlein, and a handful of other notables were in the field.
UCLA’s Gregor Main won the 2007 PING with 2011 high school graduate Jordan Spieth winning in 2008 and again last fall. Alabama’s Cory Whitsett was second in ’08.
UCLA’s Cantlay was third at the 2009 PING.
“It obviously helps to have played this course before,” said Uihlein. “There are a lot of places you aren’t going to find in just one day of practice.”