Baked out and getting tougher: Firm and fast course leaves every team over par after tricky first round of men’s NCAA Championship

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — After the first round of play at the 2022 NCAA Div. I Men’s Golf Championship, it’s Course: 30, Field: 0.

Every team in the field at Grayhawk Golf Club finished over during Friday’s opening round thanks to a firm-and-fast test of golf that left players and coaches scratching their heads.

Vanderbilt was the best of the bunch and leads the way at 2 over after minimizing mistakes at the tricky track in the desert. Sophomores William Moll and Cole Sherwood and freshman Gordon Sargent each minimized mistakes to sign for rounds of even par and sit T-8 on the individual leaderboard. Kansas senior Harry Hillier and Auburn freshman Brendan Valdes are T-1 at 2 under, with just five other players under par at T-3.

“It’s nice to get off to a good start in this tournament in afternoon wave. The course plays a little tougher in the afternoon, so I thought we did a good job,” said head coach Scott Limbaugh.

Golfweek/Sagarin Rankings: Men’s team | Men’s individual
More: What we want to see at the 2022 NCAA Championship

Senior Reid Davenport was the Commodores fourth counting score at 2 over, leaving fifth-year Harrison Ott’s 4 over on the chopping block. You know you’re doing something right when the score you drop is better than the course average for the day (74.43).

“The conditions down there at PGA National in terms of the firmness of greens and the way they rolled was very similar here,” said Limbaugh of how the team’s 12-shot win at the Palm Beach regional prepared them for the national championship. “It’s firm and didn’t have a ton of wind so that was a good, that was what they were excited about. I think this time of year is about momentum and you’re just trying to fight to keep it. The guys have been playing well for a little while now so just trying to keep ‘em going.”

What do you tell a team that’s leading the national championship by three shots over Oregon and Auburn (who played in the morning wave)?

“Just do something that makes you feel good, whether that’s stretching or getting a milkshake or hitting a few putts, whatever it is,” explained Limbaugh” You want to leave here on a positive note and go home and get some rest for a really early restart in the morning.”

With Grayhawk hosting the championship for a second consecutive year, coaches have been comparing the rounds to years prior. Most, if not all, agree that the firmness of the course and speed on the greens is more similar to last year’s third and fourth rounds of stroke play.

“I think it’s about a day or two ahead of maybe where we got to last year, that’s about the way I’m viewing it. If I remember it was pretty firm around round three last year, and it’s already started getting there,” said Limbaugh. “We saw it yesterday in the practice round. I think it’s a great challenge, it rewards good golf shots and rewards disciplined players that that are kind of strong enough to stay with the plan.”

“Today was a great, tough test,” Auburn head coach Nick Clinard said. “The greens are baked out and it’s getting tougher as the hours go by. It’s certainly going to separate the field, and that’s what we want. We’ve got to be at our best if we want a chance to play for the championship.”

Oregon head coach Casey Martin agreed and echoed the sentiment of the test that is Grayhawk, saying “You’re not gonna avoid this golf course.”

With the course playing two shots higher than last year’s opening round, and with Grayhawk in year two of its three-year deal as host, comparisons to 2021 are natural. But does the first round predict what we’ll see come match play? Yes and no.

Nine teams were T-8 or better this time last year. Two of those top eight didn’t make the first cut to 15 teams after 54 holes, while five made match play. The first round does a decent job of deciphering who will be in the mix for the top eight, but nobody can be ruled out. Texas Tech led after 18 holes and finished T-11 last year. Sam Houston State was second and finished T-9. North Carolina was T-15 and played its way to eighth, while Illinois jumped from T-10 to fifth.

On the individual side, 16 players were at T-5 or better after last year’s first round. Only three of those players – Florida’s State John Pak, Oklahoma State’s Bo Jin and Clemson’s national champion Turk Pettit – finished in the top five at end of the stroke play.

Purdue’s Cole Bradley led after the first 18 last year and finished T-39. Sam Houston’s Ting-Wei Hsieh was T-2 with teammate William Holcomb and Jin and finished T-57 (Holcomb finished T-8, Jin was second by one shot).

It’s easier said than done to start and finish strong at this level, especially at a demanding course like Grayhawk, let alone in 100-degree heat. More of the same will be awaiting the men for Saturday’s second round.

“If we want to be successful tomorrow, we’ve got to stay in the present and accept what the course gives us,” Clinard said. “We’ve got to understand that it’s going to be tough but still be ready to battle. Understanding the value of a par is important. Bogeys aren’t going to kill us, so we’ve just got to keep rolling and plugging along.”