By Ken MacLeod
FAYETTEVILE, Ark. – There’s one way to successfully play Blessings Golf Club and that is to follow Oklahoma State sophomore Austin Eckroat’s lead. Hit almost every fairway, stripe your irons within 10 feet of the hole and nudge in enough putts to shoot a 3-under 69, about the worst score he could have made after such excellent ball striking.
Or you can do as teammate Matt Wolff did, and make a double bogey and three bogeys on the front nine before reeling off four birdies to get back to even before a closing bogey leaves you at 1-over.
Then there was Ben Hogan Award winner, U.S. Amateur champion and Masters low amateur Viktor Hovland, who looked like he was ready to take back every nice thing he had said about the Blessings after struggling to a 75 in his opening round.
Add in Zach Bauchou’s 1-over 73 and the Cowboys shot 2-over 290 as a team, maybe not what they intended but better than every other squad in the elite 30-team field in the 2019 NCAA Men’s Championship.
The Cowboys are a shot ahead of Stanford and two clear of Auburn and California, which was paced by a 67 by Colin Monikawa, the day’s best round by two shots. Eckroat is tied for second with Kyler Dunkle of Utah and Chun An Yu of Arizona State at 69.
Oklahoma is tied for 14th after a rugged first round in which the Sooner’s best score was a 75 by freshman Patrick Welch. Blaine Hale and Brad Dalke shot 76 and Garett Reband 78. The usually steady Quade Cummins had a 79.
Both OSU coach Alan Bratton and OU coach Ryan Hybl had said prior to the tournament that their players would be able to figure out the Blessings’ idiosyncrasies well enough through the solitary practice round they were allotted, but it was apparent that it’s going to be a learning process for them and every other team in the field. Only eight teams shot under 300 and 35 players shot 80 or higher. The average score was 77.03.
The 515-yard par-4 seventh hole played the most difficult, with 48 bogeys, 15 double bogeys and six “others” for a scoring average of 4.54.
“You’ve got to drive it really good, strike it really good and then around the greens it’s tough,” Eckroat said. “It’s a great golf course, a hard golf course. You’ve got to play really well to score well.”
Eckroat played the back nine (the Cowboys first nine) even then birdied the first three holes of the front nine. He missed short birdie putts on the par-5 fifth hole and the par-3 eighth and also had good chances on seven and nine.
“I hit it great but really just didn’t make any putts,” said Eckroat, who last week made it through sectional qualifying to earn a berth in the 2019 U.S. Open.
“You’ve got to be patient out here,” Bratton said. “It’s tricky. You can get in some spots where you’re just dead. If you know the course better maybe you can avoid those but our guys got in them a couple of times. You’ve got to avoid those. But the greens are absolutely perfect and if you get it below the hole and miss a putt, it’s your own fault. Overall I liked what I saw from our guys.”
“This is a championship golf course. It will separate the field. But you’ve got to stay patient. You’re going to get some weird bounces in spots, but you can’t let that bother you. We’ll get to know it better. Goal as the week goes is to get to know it better and better each day.”
While Bratton told his team to get off their feet after the trek around the long and hilly layout, Hybl sent his to the range to get some solid swings in before an early tee time Saturday.
“Just wasn’t a very good day,” Hybl said. “This is a golf course that exposes your bad shots and boy I saw a lot of bad swings today. Some of it is mental, but it’s all about execution out here. You’ve got to fully commit to what you’re doing and I saw some uncommitted golf swings out there.
“We’re not going to be in a very good spot and tomorrow is a big day for us.”
The Sooners shot 30-under in three rounds in their regional in Pullman, Wa., but will need to mentally adjust to grinding out pars at Blessings. Although they shot 17-over in the first round, they are only seven shots behind eighth-place Texas and can move up considerably with a solid round Saturday morning.