West Lafayette, IN--Kyle Stanley shot a four-under par 68 to lead one of Clemson's greatest in-round comebacks in history on Thursday morning at the 111th NCAA Men's Golf Championship at Purdue University's Kampen Course. The Tigers hold a one stroke lead over UCLA. Clemson is first at 589, one shot ahead of UCLA and two shots ahead of Southern California.
Clemson played the back nine, its first nine holes of the day in 11 over par and found itself tied for 15th place at 24 over par for the tournament. But, the Tigers played the front nine, their second of the day, in 11-under par to finish at even par 288 for the round and 13-over par for the tournament. Clemson and Stanford had the top rounds of the day at even par 288.
Clemson's 288 team score on Thursday was 13 shots better than its 301 on Wednesday. It was the best one-day improvement by a Clemson golf team at the NCAA Championships since a 15-stroke improvement on the same day five years ago. Clemson went from a 302 to a 287 for a 15-stroke improvement from the second to the third rounds on May 29, 2003. That was a key round in Clemson's drive to the 2003 National Championship.
This is the first time Clemson has had the lead at the conclusion of an NCAA Tournament round since it had the lead after the final round of the NCAA Golf Championship at Oklahoma State in 2003. Clemson also had the midway lead at Hazeltine in Chaska, MN in 1999.
All five Clemson golfers improved by at least four shots from their first nine to the second nine, including Sam Saunders who shot a 40 on the back nine, but came back with a 34 on the front nine. "This was the tale of two nines," said Clemson Head Coach Larry Penley, who is celebrating his Silver Anniversary as the school's head coach.
"We made seven double bogeys on the first nine (five that counted towards the team score) and I was looking at the scoreboard wondering what place 25 to 28 over par would be after two rounds. I was thinking about the cut, not leading the golf tournament.
"Then we started making birdies, a consistent run of birdies by all five players. It started with a couple of guys making birdies on one, then a couple more on two. Then Kyle (Stanley) and Phillip (Mollica) made incredible birdies on the par five fourth hole. Phillip made an eagle on six, Kyle birdied seven, Phillip birdied eight and Sam Saunders birdied nine. The key was we didn't make any bogeys along the way. All of a sudden we went from 15th to first in nine holes.
"It was a great experience for our golf team. We always talk about not giving up and that anything can happen in a college golf tournament. Today they experienced that first hand. It was a very impressive performance today. The second nine holes put us in position where we have a chance to win this tournament. That is all you ask from your team."
Stanley continued his outstanding play in the NCAA Tournament with his second round 68. He has a two-day total of four under par 140 and trails Billy Horschel of Florida by just one shot. Horschel, who played the first two rounds with Stanley, had a 67 on Thursday.
"The difference for me today was putting," said Stanley. "I am getting more comfortable with the greens. I have driven the ball well both days and my ball striking has been good. The key was making some putts."
Stanley started the day with birdies on his first two holes, the 10th and 11th holes on the course. He then made a double bogey on the 12th hole, but he did not allow that to ruin his round. In fact, it was the only blemish on his card all day. He then made a birdie on the par three second hole and followed with a key birdie on the par five fourth hole.
"That birdie on the fourth hole was a key for me. I hit my second shot short and had a down hill lie in the rough. But, I got the third shot on the green and made about a 20 foot putt for birdie." Stanley then made birdie on the 600-yard par-five sixth hole when he got up-and-down from just off the green. He made another birdie on the seventh hole and made par on the eighth and ninth holes.
Mollica had a rough start and was four-over par at the turn, including a bogey on the difficult 18th hole when he drove the ball in the right rough near a tree. The fourth hole also turned his round around. He drove the ball into the rough near a storage shed on the right side of the fairway and took a drop off a cart path.
His second shot found the rough 80 yards from the green. But, like Stanley, he had a difficult down hill lie. He did have a lot of green to work with and hit the ball right at the pin and it came to rest 10 feet behind the hole. He then made the putt for birdie. Mollica then made an eagle on the par-five sixth hole when he chipped in from off the green from 15 feet. It was the first eagle of the day for any player on that hole and the first eagle of the tournament for any Clemson golfer. The native of Anderson, SC now leads the Tigers in eagles this year with five.
Mollica made his final birdie of the day on the eighth hole. He hit his approach to within four feet of the cup and then made the putt. That birdie put him at even par for the day and he finished with a 72 to go with his 75 in the first round. His 36-hole score of 147 ranks in 13th place. David May and Sam Saunders both recorded their own comeback stories on Thursday and both finished with rounds of two-over par 74. May had a 39 on the back side, then improved to 35 on the front. He made a birdie on the first hole, his 10th hole of the day, then made par the rest of the way to finish at 74. He had a double bogey five on the 17th hole, but he did not allow that to ruin his round. It was significant improvement over his first round 80.
Saunders improved from 81 on the first day to 74 on Thursday. The seven-stroke improvement was the best by a Clemson golfer in an NCAA Championship since Matt Hendrix improved from 78 to 69 between the second and third rounds at the 2003 NCAA Championships at Stillwater, OK. That improvement also took place on May 29.
Saunders shot a 40 on the back nine, but birdied the first hole to get back to three over par. He made seven straight pars, then birdied the ninth hole, his final hole of the day. He hit a seven iron 168 yards to within two feet of the pin for his birdie. Ben Martin shot a 77 on Thursday and his score did not count toward Clemson's team score, but he also made a significant improvement. He had a 41 on the back nine, then played the front nine in even par. He made birdies on the first and second holes to key his comeback.
Clemson will be in the first wave of teams to tee off on Friday morning. After Friday's round, the field will be cut to the top 15 teams for Saturday's final round. Fans can follow the scores on golfstat.com.
Clemson at NCAA Golf Championship
Kyle Stanley 72 68 140 2nd
Phillip Mollica 75 72 147 13th
Ben Martin 74 77 151 44th
David May 80 74 154 70th
Sam Saunders 81 74 155 85th
Clemson 301 288 589 1st