OOLTEWAH, Tenn. To a man, Florida State coaches and players said the Seminoles came into the NCAA Championships loose, confident and playing well.
Loose is one thing then there's the zone Florida State found itself in during the tournament's second round at The Honors Course on Wednesday. The Seminoles racked up 22 birdies while blitzing the field with a nine-under-par 279. Heading into the day, the 'Noles were tied with 10-time national champions Oklahoma State at five under par. They moved to 14 under, five shots clear of the Cowboys and 10 ahead of third-place Georgia Tech.
"We came out here today and jumped all over a hard golf course," Florida State Coach Trey Jones said.
The Honors is certainly difficult. This is the same course that extracted a final-round 80 from Tiger Woods in the 1996 NCAA Championships, after the future star bludgeoned it to the tune of 11 under for three rounds.
Yes, the Pete Dye masterpiece usually has plenty of bite, but benign weather conditions and greens still softened by heavy rains last weekend have made the place downright hospitable. "It's like playing golf indoors," said Oklahoma State Coach Mike McGraw.
Ask San Diego's Alex Ching about that. He's the individual leader after 36 holes for the second straight year after firing a 66 on Wednesday for a nine-under 135. There is some dispute about the competitive course record at The Honors, but most people at the club assumed it was 67, shot by Woods in '96. If that's the case, move over, Tiger.
Besides that whole confidence thing, here's another little secret to FSU's success this week: This team doesn't like tight golf courses. The Honors' fairways aren't exceptionally wide, but they aren't all that narrow, either. The course plays into the Seminoles' hands by giving them plenty of chances to unleash the big stick.
"These guys generate a lot of [clubhead] speed," Jones said. "Get them on a golf course where they can use their drivers, and they like that."
Florida State got a four-under 68 from Michael Hebert and 70s from Seath Lauer and Drew Kittleson, but no player epitomized the team's loosey-goosey vibe more than Wesley Graham, whose four-over-par 76 in the first round didn't count. Apparently he's not one to dwell on such things.
Graham started on the tough par-4 10th hole on Wednesday, and he banged a driver straight down the middle. He ripped a 4-iron to seven feet, made the putt for birdie and his fuse was ignited. He proceeded to birdie the next four holes perfect drives setting up every one and lipped out a putt on the par-4 15th for what would have been his sixth consecutive birdie.
"Wes is that guy who can put a bad round behind him and be running hot the next day," Jones said. "He didn't make a putt outside 10 feet on those five straight holes he birdied."
Graham ended up with seven birdies on the day, and though a lot of that initial burst was negated by four bogeys and a double he shot 71 his quick start helped energize his teammates.
"It was one of those days that could have been really, really good," Graham said. "But I'm not worried about it. For the last two weeks, all of us on this team have been in a good frame of mind. This is where we thought we'd be."
Lauer, who at five under is four strokes behind Ching for the individual championship, attributes the Seminoles' mindset to "all the characters we have on this team." And Hebert, who led the way on Wednesday, points to a piece of advice Jones likes to hand out in the postseason.
"We put in some good work before this tournament," Hebert said. "Coach always tells us you work hard before the tournament, then have fun at the tournament. This isn't the time you want to be grinding. It should be fun."
Overshadowed but not forgotten was Oklahoma State, which remains in sight of the Seminoles for the right to claim the No. 1 seed in Friday's match play portion of this tournament and also has a dog in the hunt for the individual title. That would be Peter Uihlein, who tacked a 68 onto his opening 69 and stands at seven under for the tournament, tied with Augusta State's Henrik Norlander and Scott Langley of Illinois, who had one hole left to play after his second round was suspended by darkness.
Uihlein and Norlander led most of the day, which was lengthened considerably by a two-hour rain delay. Before a thunderstorm cleared the course, Ching was producing some thunder of his own. Starting at No. 10, he birdied Nos. 12-14, 16 and 17.
The rain delay, which began after his eighth hole, didn't much bother Ching, who won the Mardi Gras Invitational at TPC Louisiana earlier this year with a 64 that tied the course record set by a couple of PGA Tour players in the Zurich Classic. He birdied Nos. 1 and 2 after making the turn, shook off a double-bogey at the par-3 third, tacked on one more birdie at the tough par-4 seventh and made two closing pars for a 66.
"Alex rises to the occasion in big events," said San Diego Coach Tim Mickelson, brother of Phil. "He did it last year and he did it again this year. And he can go low. He's shot some 64s on some very difficult courses."
Ching didn't get too fired up about his 66. He's got one more round to play to win the individual championship that he let slip away a year ago. He shot 70-68 at Inverness Club to take the 36-hole lead, only to struggle to a final-round 76 and finish in a tie for 13th.
"This was one of those days where your shots land close to the pin and your putts fall," Ching said. "But there's one more round to play. I've got to stay focused. If you take one minute off on this golf course, it can jump up and get you."