Slow start has Stanford in danger of early NCAA exit


EUGENE, Ore. – At this time last week, it was No. 1-ranked Alabama that was reeling.

Now, it’s top-ranked Stanford’s turn on the men’s side – and the Cardinal are in even more dire shape.

Arguably the hottest team in the country entering NCAAs, with three consecutive team titles (including at the loaded Pac-12s and regionals), Stanford is at 26-over 586, last among the late-early starters. The Cardinal are in need of a low round Sunday, or else their season will come to a surprising end.

“I thought the guys would play a little bit today,” coach Conrad Ray said, “but that’s the nature of the beast. You just don’t quite know what you’re going to get.”

But no one expected it’d be this much of a struggle at Eugene Country Club.

Player of the Year contender Maverick McNealy shot rounds of 76-71 and was outside the top 100 individually when he finished his round. Three other Stanford players are 8 over or worse after two days.

“There’s not much point thinking right now that it’s done, that it’s over,” said senior David Boote, who leads the team at 2-over 142. “We’ve just got to knuckle down and hope it pays off.”

The clock is ticking for Stanford.

The 30-team field is trimmed to the top 15 after 54 holes. It’s a cut line that Alabama, the No. 1-ranked women’s team, didn’t expect to worry about last week either, until the Crimson Tide rallied on Day 3 to make the cut. They eventually finished 15th and didn’t advance to match play.

At this point, the Cardinal would do well to play all four stroke-play rounds. They’re 23 shots off the lead.

“It’s disappointing the first two days,” McNealy said, “but it wasn’t for a lack of trying. We all gave our best efforts and prepared the best we knew how.

“If it’s just one more day and we don’t get the job done, I think we’re going to have to sit back and think about why we played like this, what made us play this way.”

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Stanford’s players have already provided a few clues.

The players who are most successful at tree-lined Eugene Country Club are those who drive it long and straight. That’s especially true for the men’s championship, with the rough getting longer, the greens getting firmer and the pins getting tucked closer to the edges. 

“This golf course rewards length off the tee and straightness,” Ray said, “and if you don’t have one or the other, you’re going to be in trouble.”

Stanford has two players with above-average length – No. 5 man Jeffrey Swegle, who broke his driver a few days before leaving for NCAAs, and McNealy, one of the nation’s best players – but as a whole, it is one of the shorter squads. 

McNealy won three times in the fall but hasn’t been as sharp throughout the spring season. The strengths of his game are iron play and mid-range putting – his game is an 8-iron to 15 feet and he makes the putt – but he hasn’t converted those opportunities with the same frequency. His preparation for NCAAs hasn’t been ideal, either: He got sick before the second round of regionals (where he finished second) and also spent two and a half days in Fort Worth earlier this week for the Hogan Award ceremony.

“A golf course like this will expose you if you’re not 100 percent on,” he said.

The best team score through two rounds is even par, but Stanford likely needs a 5- or 6-under round Sunday to avoid heading home early – again. The Cardinal reached the semifinals in 2014, on the strength of NCAA individual champion Cameron Wilson and Patrick Rodgers, but in their other four appearances since 2011, they’ve finished no better than 19th.  

“I think our guys have high expectations,” Ray said, “but at the end of the day there’s got to be a little grind-it-out, and I think that’s what a week like this does for you.”