Originally created 05/17/98

Jags slip into finals of NCAA



DAUFUSKIE ISLAND, S.C. -- Augusta State flirted with golf futility Saturday, its opportunity to advance to NCAA Championships fleeting with every missed putt here at The Melrose Course.

Then the cadre of Jaguars players and parents neighboring the 18th green, most crossing their fingers or performing their own prayer ritual, released a collective moan after the team's best player, Augustan Vaughn Taylor, dump his 3-wood approach into the bordering Atlantic Ocean.

"Oh brother," one muttered.

Taylor, unfazed by his wetness, dropped from 55 yards away and stuck a sand wedge approach to two feet. Oh brother, indeed.

Par was saved, and so were the Jaguars.

Augusta State ended ninth in the 23-team East Regional field, its Saturday score of 4-over par 292 decent enough to stretch its season to one final tournament.

Georgia Tech, with the regional's individual stroke medalist Matt Kuchar (14-under par 202), served notice during its nine-stroke win (29-under 835) that these Yellow Jackets are strong contenders in Albuquerque.

Clemson, with Augusta native John Engler's 3-under par 213, finished second at 20-under. Georgia (13-under) and South Carolina (even par) will also join the Jaguars in the 30-team finals field.

"The last three or four holes I didn't have a clue as to what was going on," said Taylor, the regional's low Jaguar at 5-under par 211. "Then when I hit the water, and it was like, `Oh no!'

"But to know that my par may have gotten us in ... I'm still not sure how I made that par."

The Jaguars entered Saturday sitting seventh overall, 11 shots better than the perceived cut line. Faulty putting, though, became contagious, and the flock of ASU parents on this Gilligan-esque island fretted amongst themselves when stories of lipped out birdies were repeated.

Still, most of the players and parents didn't believe coach Jim Kelson when he tried to assuage his young team's cut fears.

Freshman Robert Duck and sophomore Chris Roake had to see for themselves, so the two stood before the massive clubhouse scoreboard, their minds adding and subtracting competitors scores.

They weren't going to beat Georgia Tech, but the Jaguars didn't need to. The top 11 advance to Albuquerque, N.M., site of the NCAA championships in two weekends.

Only after seeing the board's construction-paper scissors two spots beneath their school's name did the duo breathe easy.

"Good thing we had that buffer, or else we'd be sweating for real," said junior Jeff Keck after his 2-over par 74.

ASU previous finals appearances came in 1993, '94 and '95, but the Jaguars failed to earn regional berths the previous two seasons.

"This hasn't sunk in yet," said Taylor, a freshman on ASU's '95 team. "I'm a senior, and to get to go out in style is a great feeling. In '95 I didn't understand what it was all about. But we've got a good team, and we're not going to go in with our eyes wide open."

The Jaguars will need their game faces -- more importantly, some bulls-eye putting -- if they're to topple college golfing giants.