AUBURN, Ala. - At 20, James Heath is older than the average college freshman. Those extra years of maturation paid off Thursday.
The Augusta State golfer recorded four birdies on the final seven holes en route to shooting 3-under-par 69 in the first round of the NCAA East Regional at the Auburn University Club at Yarbrough Farms. The second round of the 54-hole tournament is today.
Heath led the Jaguars to a 2-over 290 finish and a tie for fifth place with Florida and Wake Forest. Georgia Tech and Tennessee shot 281 and lead Clemson (285) by four.
The top 10 teams will advance to the NCAA Championships May 27-30 at Stillwater, Okla.
Heath is tied for fifth place, two shots behind co-leaders Gareth Maybin (South Alabama) and Ross McGowan (Tennessee), who fired 67s.
In addition to Heath, other Augusta-area golfers in contention include Clemson's Matt Hendrix of Aiken (70, tied for 10th place); Auburn's Will Claxton of Swainsboro, Ga. (72, tied for 24th); Georgia Tech's Adam Cranford of Augusta (72); and College of Charleston's Kyle Bradley of North Augusta (72).
"It was nice to get off to a good start," said Cranford, a fifth-year senior. "The key was just to get into a rhythm early."
Of the other Augusta-area golfers in the field, Augusta's Cortland Lowe had 74 for Wake Forest, Augusta's Jay Mundy had 75 for Auburn, and Aiken's Alex Hamilton shot 76 for South Carolina.
Augusta State, Clemson and Wake Forest, the region's top three seeds, all teed off between 11 a.m. and noon in the first round. Those teams avoided early-morning rain and used the afternoon's dry weather to stay close to the lead.
"I almost feel bad for the teams that went out in the morning," Hendrix said. "It was almost unplayable conditions."
Heath, of Surrey, England, is in the hunt for his first tournament title since arriving in Augusta in January. The 69 was his fifth round in the 60s in his past seven rounds.
"I'm a freshman over here," said Heath, "but I've been playing competitive golf for a while."
After three-putting for bogey on No. 11, Heath responded with a tap-in birdie on the par-5 12th hole. He then reeled off birdies on Nos. 14-16.
"I knew if I kept playing well I could turn it around," Heath said. "I could've easily got (upset) and shot 4-over. It all depends on how you handle things."
Augusta State had problems handling the last two holes, shooting 5-over on the 213-yard par-3 17th hole and the 414-yard par-4 18th. Emmett Turner was 4-under through 16 holes, but failed to get up and down on the last two holes and ended with 70.
Oliver Wilson found the greenside bunker at No. 17 and made bogey on his way to shooting 75. Kalle Edberg struggled to a 76, while Scott Jamieson shot 77.
"I really feel we played well," Augusta State coach Josh Gregory said. "We just didn't get much out of our game. ... It's not a bad start. It's a very demanding golf course. This is just survive and advance."
Georgia Tech is a surprise co-leader. The Yellow Jackets, whose best finish this season is third, won the 2002 East Regional.
"It's been a frustrating year," Cranford said. "I think everybody is accustomed to Georgia Tech being a great program the past five, six years. We just haven't played up to our potential."
Reach Chris Gay at (706) 868-1222, ext. 114.