HUTCHINSON, Kan. – Toni Hakula was on the first tee at 6:58 a.m. local time Friday, ready to kick off this year’s NCAA Championship. Twenty-six hours and 3 minutes later, his first round was in the books.
“That was the longest round of my life,” the Texas senior said, rubbing his forehead. “I don’t think I’ve ever woken up at 5 a.m. two days in a row.”
Early wakeup calls were only part of the problem for teams in the morning wave at this NCAA Championship. First-round play was delayed three times for a total of 8 hours and 10 minutes Friday, and the waiting game became more of a mental test than a physical one.
“You had to be mentally tough,” said Auburn freshman Matt Gilchrest, who opened with 68. “You had to be ready to play whenever they blow the horn.”
But let’s face it – these are still college kids. They found ways to pass the time.
Gilchrest watched crime shows on Netflix. Iowa State’s guys played cards. South Carolina’s players? Well, they hung out in the locker room, singing duck songs (with real quack noises) and reciting lines from the movie “Airplane!”
“You’re always worried about that kind of day,” South Carolina coach Bill McDonald said, “but they had fun with it. They embraced it.”
Eventually, play was called for the day at 6:45 p.m. When players resumed their first round at 7 a.m. Saturday, they were greeted by overcast skies, comfortable temperatures and virtually no wind.
Quite a departure from the norm.
For years Prairie Dunes has tortured players. The winning score at the past four Big 12 Championships was between 19 and 29 over par. Last year, Brandon Stone won the individual title at even par. During one round there was sleet and 35-mph winds; the wind chill hovered around 0. In 2011, there were several scores in the upper-80s.
And now? Well, the place was soft and scoreable.
“I’ve played 10 or 11 rounds here,” Hakula said, “and I’ve never seen anything like this.”
No team in the morning wave took advantage quite like South Carolina, which shot 8-under 272 to lead the early starters by two shots. Four teams in the morning wave – the teams seeded 16-30 – finished their first round in the red. South Carolina’s Will Starke shot 6-under 64 to grab the individual lead.
Now, those teams that waited 26 hours to finish their first round will have the rest of the day off. Weather permitting, the afternoon starters – a wave that includes the top 12 teams in the country – will play all afternoon, likely until the 8:45 p.m. sunset.
Said McDonald, “I’d say a pretty good nap is in our future.”