FAYETTEVILLE — The Arkansas golf team didn’t get the type of performance it expected during the first round of the NCAA Regional at The Blessings on Thursday.
But the Razorbacks’ confidence their home course would prove to be a big advantage became abundantly clear Friday.
The Razorbacks blistered the field during the second-round, shooting 5-under par to take a one-stroke lead over second-place Illinois heading into Saturday’s final round. It means Arkansas, which made up ground after trailing the Illini by eight strokes Thursday, is in position to grab an NCAA Regional title for the first time since 1991.
“It doesn’t get any better than that,” Arkansas coach Brad McMakin said. “We’re going to be in the lead group. That’s where we wanted to be on the last day.”
Arkansas is in prime position after getting a big performance from senior Austin Cook, who led the team with a 4-under par performance Friday. Cook didn’t have a bogey throughout the second round, collecting birdies on No. 4, 9, 12 and 17.
He nearly aced the par-3 17th hole with a tee shot that just missed the cup.
“I thought it went in,” Cook said. “I really did. It disappeared in the shadow and I thought it was (a hole-in-one) because the gallery was jumping up and down.”
Cook enters the final round tied with SMU’s Mario Clemons and Stephen F. Austin’s Mitchell McLeroy for the individual lead at 4-under for the tournament.
“I did come in thinking I could (win),” Cook said. “I like this track a lot. I’ve learned how to play it. It makes you play golf, but you get a feel for it after awhile. What you can do with some holes. I do like my chances.”
But Cook wasn’t the only Arkansas player with a big round Saturday.
Nicolas Echavarria, who wasn’t in the lineup for the SEC Tournament, shot 2-under in the second round. McMakin said he turned to Echavarria this week because of his experience in big tournaments and it paid off with strong play Friday.
Echavarria’s round included six birdies.
SEC champion Sebastian Cappelen had an up-and-down day that included five birdies, five bogeys and a double bogey to finish 1-over par. Taylor Moore was solid once again, shooting even-par for the second straight day.
“We battled back (Friday) and got back in the tournament,” said Moore, who is tied with two others for eighth place entering the final round.
Arkansas’ performance came on a day the rest of the field struggled. Illinois and Tulsa (tied for sixth overall) finished with the next best scores at 4-over par Friday.
Other key competitors entering the regional — Texas (10-over), Oklahoma State (16-over) and Kent State (15-over) — had even bigger problems on the course.
McMakin believes it had to do with the pin placements Friday.
“The scores were higher because they tucked them pretty good,” McMakin said. “But we made birdies, especially Nicolas and Austin. Those two lapped the field (Friday) and Taylor (Moore) played good, too.”
So Arkansas (3-under par 573) holds a one-stroke lead over Illinois (2-under par 574) entering the final round. Texas (7-over par 583), Oklahoma State (14-over par 590) and Kent State (15-over par 591) are third, fourth and fifth, respectively.
The top five teams advance to the NCAA Championships.
Arkansas has all but secured a spot in the field by taking a 22-stroke lead over sixth-place Tulsa and SMU into the final round of the regional. But the Razorbacks want to celebrate something else at the end of the day: An NCAA Regional title.
“It’s our home course,” McMakin said. “We should have an advantage with all of our guys playing well. We can make a run at (the tournament win).”