__OOLTEWAH, TENN.—__All anyone wanted to talk about prior to the start of the 2010 NCAA Championship was the big bad Honors Course and how unforgiving it was toward anyone who dared try and break par.
Indeed, you could hardly have a conversation with a golf fan in the greater Chattanooga area and not be reminded of how__Tiger Woods__ shot an 80 here during the final round of the 1996 national championship and still won the individual title by four strokes. The difficulty of the Pete Dye design is such a source of pride that club members asked the rules officials to instruct spectators to walk in the fairways rather than the rough, so as not to stamp it down and make things any easier.
What the club members couldn't account for, however, was all the rain the area has gotten in recent days, softening the greens and making them—gasp!—a bit more receptive to shots.
The true challenge, then, for the collegians during Tuesday's first round of the 2010 tournament was to change their mindset and convince themselves that they could actually "go low" on the course.
"You can't have too much respect for the course," said Arizona State's Jesper Kennegard, who made six birdies and an eagle en route to a four-under 68 during the morning wave, a score that remained atop the leader board by day's end, equalled only by Augusta State's__Henrik Norlander__.
A group of 10 golfers sits one stroke back having posted three-under 69s, a handful of whom had chances at either grabbing the outright lead or at least a share. Clemson's__Luke Hopkins__ closed with a double bogey on the 18th hole, costing him an opportunity at tying the competitive course record (67) set by Woods in 1996. Oklahoma State's Peter Uihlein bogeyed his final hole as did Baylor's Ryan O'Rear and Florida State's Seath Lauer.
"I didn't think anyone would be under par [as a team]," said Arizona State coach Randy Lein, whose Sun Devils squad won the 1996 team title here with 34-over total. "I figured three or four over would be a good starting point and you'd go from there."
Instead, the lead was five-under 283 (a single-round course record) shared by Oklahoma State and Florida State. "This course couldn't have played any easier than the way it played today," admitted FSU coach Trey Jones. "The guys took advantage of it."
The Seminoles counted Lauer's 69, along with a 70 from Drew Kittleson, a 71 from__Brooks Koepka__ and a 73 from Michael Hebert. It was a solid day, said Jones, considering just one of his players (Lauer) had ever played in the championship before.
"I challenge you to find a more relaxed group out there," said Jones, who has seen his team's confidence rise over the past month, a second-place finish at the Central Regional inspiring the bunch.
In addition to Uihlein's 69, the Cowboys got rounds of 70 from Morgan Hoffman and Trent Whitekiller, putting them in a familiar position at the national championship: out in front.
Despite a dire forecast and some occasional sprinkles and rumbles in the distance during the afternoon, the entire 154-player field completed the opening 18 holes. While the practice round offered a hint that the Honors Course might not have the teeth that most anticipated, making that adjustment was far from easy.
"You gear up so much for it to be tough," said Washington coach Matt Thurmond, whose team ended the day in ninth place but is only six back of the lead after shooting a one-over 289. "In our mind, we've been preparing for par to be a great score. But you've got to be ready for anything."
If there's a saving grace for those that didn't take advantage of the perfect conditions, it's this: no school ran away from the field, as might have been the case if the course was playing tougher. Nine teams—Oregon, Texas A&M, Arizona State, Clemson, Florida, Augusta State, Washington, Texas and Georgia Tech—are within seven shots of the lead.
Indeed while those being chased might have red numbers next to their names, they aren't so far ahead as to be out of sight.
Coaches often lament about how their teams finish off a round, and it was no different during the first round at the Honors Course. For Oregon, which started off the 10th tee, wrapping up play on the par-4 ninth hole proved to be a blessing as the Ducks made three birdies to finish the day at four-under 284, one stroke back of Oklahoma State and Florida State.
Conversely, the closing stretch turned a solid round into a sobering one for Clemson. The Tigers at one point were as low as seven under par and leading the tournament, but played the par-5 17th one over and the par-4 18th three over to fall to T-5.
"We played really, really, really good for 16 holes," said Tiger coach Larry Penley. "If we tighten up [the finish] a little bit, then we're four or five or six under, which is exactly where you need to be. Two under you're back on the Mendoza line [for being inside the top eight teams and qualifying for match play]. We played too good to do what we did coming in. But we did it and now we have to find a way to regroup and try to go get them tomorrow morning."