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Calm day helps NCAA golfers devour Prairie Dunes

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Saturday, May 24, 2014, at 10:12 p.m.
  • Updated Thursday, May 29, 2014, at 7:14 a.m.

— Will Starke finished his round before noon Saturday, but he didn’t stop golfing until the sun was on its way down. The South Carolina sophomore hit practice balls at the driving range. He spent time on the putting green. He even carried an iron into the clubhouse at Prairie Dunes Country Club as he chatted with other competitors.

Starke didn’t want to stop golfing, and it was easy to understand why. He closed out the back nine of his opening round with an eagle and three birdies to shoot 64, the second-lowest score of the NCAA Golf Championship. Only Stanford’s Cameron Wilson, who holed out twice from the fairway on his way to a second-round 63 in the evening, topped him.

The course record at this links-style course is 62, but that was shot at lower yardage. Prairie Dunes officials said they couldn’t recall a lower competitive score from the back tees.

Yet, when Wilson and Starke were asked to describe their days, they shrugged.

“It was a fun afternoon,” Wilson said. “I knew I was going to hit the ball well, and I did.”

“It’s not that big of a deal,” Starke added. “It was easy. The wind didn’t really blow and if you drove the ball well, you could attack the pin and play pretty well. That’s what I did.”

Indeed, the playing conditions were superb. A day of rain softened the greens in the morning and kept the wind low until nightfall. The field of 158 golfers took advantage of the 6,950-yard layout, easily reaching short par 5s in two and attacking pins with short irons.

Wilson’s round, which featured five birdies and an eagle thanks to a perfectly struck 8-iron from a fairway bunker on his 11th hole, set the pace. But he shares the lead with Starke at 6 under, while 39 players are under par. The team competition belongs to Stanford, which shrugged off an opening round of 1 over to reach 12 under by the end of 36 holes. It holds a four-shot lead over South Carolina.

“This was the day to score,” Prairie Dunes general manager Scott Nelson said. “The wind didn’t blow and the greens were receptive. That could change tomorrow depending on weather conditions. Even a wind of 10 mph makes this course harder. If we see winds of 20 mph it will really be a challenge. Based on past experience, you should see the scores go closer to par.”

Weather and another long day of golf could certainly reverse some fortunes on Sunday. While half of the 30-team field carved up a friendly course for 36 holes on Saturday, half the field left after the delayed conclusion of their opening 18 holes in the morning. A portion of the teams that stayed on the course to play two rounds still have holes remaining. They will return at 7 a.m. Sunday.

After that, the plan is for the 15 teams that have completed 18 holes to play 36 holes and the 15 teams that have played 36 holes to play 18 Monday morning. Then a cut will be made, allowing the top 40 individuals to advance to a final round and eight teams to move on to match play on Tuesday. But if weather prevents teams from playing 36 holes, tournament officials may choose to cut the field down after 36 holes.

That could put pressure on teams such as Texas, which shot 9 over in its opening round and needs to make up 13 shots on LSU, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, which are all tied for sixth.

“We are going to need a good round tomorrow,” Texas coach John Fields said. “The weather was perfect today and the golf course was perfect for scoring. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the golf course we saw. We started very early and it was hard and fast and really tough. We have ground to make up, so we will need a really good round to stay in it.”

Others rejoiced over the conditions.

“I don’t know how it could have been much friendlier,” said Iowa State coach Andrew Tank after his team shot 2 under. “It was warm, calm and the greens were receptive. The course was extremely playable.”

“This is as easy as it is going to play,” added Austin Peay senior Marco Iten, shaking his head after a 72. “Soft greens, no wind, warm temperatures, not too quick ... Out here it is never going to be easy, but this is as easy as it gets.”

Of course, it didn’t all feel like child’s play. A slight wind blew across the course in the evening, and players encountered difficult pin placements during their second round.

That made Stanford’s play all the more remarkable. It struggled when others went low and then made birdie after birdie once par became a desirable score. Patrick Rodgers, David Boote, Maverick McNealy and Wilson all broke 70 in their second round.

“It was awesome to see us making that run,” Wilson said. “I heard about Cameron’s eagle on 11 and kept seeing birdies go up on the board. We were all super focused and locked in. We played our best golf on the back nine, and that’s not always easy to do at the end of a 36-hole day.”

But the opportunity was there thanks to the weather.

No one can attest to that better than Starke.

“The key out here is hitting the ball in the fairway,” Starke said. “The fairways are pretty generous, but if you hit the ball off the fairway you can get in some trouble. I avoided that today, and made some putts. That got me going. I’m not sure what it will take to win. There are a lot of good players out here and there is still a lot of golf left. You can’t get ahead of yourself, but it’s always cool to have the first-round lead.”

Reach Kellis Robinett at krobinett@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @kellisrobinett.

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