Augusta State enters the NCAA Championship today with one sizeable advantage: course knowledge.
The eighth-ranked Jaguars played the difficult Stillwater, Okla., course in September. It got in a practice round and three tournament rounds -- four days of experience the team hopes will pay off this week.
"The biggest thing is we know how to play the golf course," Jaguars coach Josh Gregory said. "The fairways will still be the same. The greens might be a touch firmer and faster. But as far as knowing what club to hit off the tee, that might be the same. We're going to know where to miss it around the greens."
Augusta State will try to successfully defend its national championship this week against 29 teams, including host Oklahoma State. The field will be trimmed to eight after 54 holes of stroke play. If the Jaguars advance to match play, which begins Friday, Gregory said his team will be dangerous.
"I feel confident that if we get to match play, we will be a tough out," he said. "Nobody will want to see us once we get to match play, because we've got two of the top 10 players in the country in Patrick (Reed) and Henrik (Norlander), and they will be very tough to beat. And I think we're strong in the 3, 4 and 5 as anybody. ... It'll be a tough draw, because we're deep."
First, Augusta State will have to play well in stroke play on the 7,400-yard Karsten Creek, a Tom Fazio- designed course that opened in 1994 and features a 110-acre lake on the back nine. The Jaguars tied for fourth in the Preview at Karsten Creek in September, and Reed posted 15 birdies and tied for fourth individually. But that Karsten Creek will be different than this Karsten Creek, which will feature 4 1/2-inch rough to go along with its quick bent-grass greens.
"It's going to be another one of those tournaments where you're going to have to be patient," Reed said. "You have to be able to hit the ball well to play well there.
"People are going to make bogeys. You're going to have to accept it."
Gregory said it took two rounds in the fall -- a practice round and the first round of the Preview -- for his team to get a good feel for Karsten Creek.
"We're going to have a good idea how to play the course," Gregory said. "We'll also have a good idea that the course is very visually intimidating, but at the same time the fairways are very wide and the greens are very big."
Last year's NCAA Championship course, The Honors Course in Ooltewah, Tenn., featured more benign conditions, its rough not much of a factor. Oklahoma State shot 14-under 850 to finish as the top team in medal play. Of the eight match-play qualifiers, six shot under par, including Augusta State at 1-under.
This week, scores are expected to be much higher. Since August, Karsten Creek has been cart path only, allowing the rough to grow and be even more difficult for this event.
Augusta State, which ranks 20th in the nation in fairways hit at 69 percent, prides itself on ball-striking. Carter Newman leads the team with 79 percent of fairways hit, while Henrik Norlander has hit 73 percent.
"We like the harder golf courses," Reed said. "For some reason, it fine-tunes our focus a little more. And also, we like the challenge. When we get on an easier golf course, it seems like all the other teams are able to take advantage as well."
The last time the national championships were held at Karsten Creek, Augusta State won the Preview in September 2002. Emmett Turner shot 3-under-par to edge out teammate Scott Jamieson for medalist honors by three shots.
When the team returned nine months later, the second-ranked Jaguars had visions of a national championship. They had won six regular season tournaments and thought they knew how the course would play. But Augusta State faced a different Karsten Creek, featuring four-inch rough and different tee boxes and pin positions. The Jaguars were also a different team.
"We were not at the top of our game," Turner said. "If you hit it a little crooked, you were going to make a big number."
Not to be discounted are the greens, the fastest Newman said he's ever played, and that includes Augusta National Golf Club.
"I remember hitting some 30-footers that I tried to hit two or three feet," he said. "Putting is going to be huge."
Karsten Creek will be the proverbial double-edged sword for Oklahoma State. The top-ranked Cowboys have won eight tournaments this season and are expected to win on their home course.
"It is hard when you're the prohibitive favorite and expected to play well on your home course with all the pressure and expectations on you," Gregory said. "There's a nothing-to-gain mentality."