By Seth Rainey, Grady Sports Bureau
Keller Harper played an error-free back nine Tuesday at the NCAA Athens Regional to provide a stable end to an otherwise frustrating day.
Following a front nine that saw Harper shoot 5-over-par, including a double bogey on the par-5 seventh hole, the Furman junior shot 1-under-par on the back nine, with his only birdie of the round on the par-5 17th. After two rounds of play, Harper is tied for 34th among individuals at 6-over-par.
Harper's ability to finish the round strong was nothing head coach Matt Davidson had not seen before, and Davidson attributed it to fixing slight mistakes at the turn.
"He putted a little bit better on the back nine," said Davidson. "I think he just cleaned up a little bit of the stuff that was bothering him on the front."
On a day that Harper felt he hit the ball cleanly off the tee-box and on his approach shots, the back nine was no different than the front, he asserted.
"I hit it well all day really," said Harper. "I didn't play any differently, just put it a little bit closer, and finally got a birdie to go on 17. I just made a couple of bad mistakes that cost me a good round."
The only thing that seemed a little different than normal, for both the coaches and Harper, was that he was playing as an individual, without the normalcy of his teammates alongside him.
Furman finished second in their conference championship, with only Harper qualifying for the regional. Assistant coach Todd Eckstein feels that the atmosphere is a bit odd without the remainder of the Furman team.
"The van feels empty," said Eckstein. "It's bizarre. It's not often you have two coaches and only one player."
Harper felt the effects of not having his teammates on the course as well, as he was the only Paladin in the van and on the course.
"It's really different," said Harper. "If I had been here by myself, without the coaches, it would have felt like an amatuer. When you look back and there's no teammate there, the feel is different. Nothing changes with the golf though, we've gone about strategizing and talking the same as if there were four teammates behind me."
Although Harper played his second round of the regional Tuesday, that doesn't mean he was unfamiliar with this course in particular.
A native of Atlanta, Harper has several connections to the University of Georgia and its golf course. His dad and his grandfather were both graduates of UGA, and Harper has spent several days in Athens.
"I've been coming here forever, to come to football games and I even played in the Georgia fundraiser (tournament) here in ninth grade, so I'm familiar with the course," Harper said.
Having prior experience with the course was instrumental in Harper's ability to put red numbers on the scorecard on the back nine, securing eight pars and the one birdie.
"I've played the course a lot," said Harper. "Obviously, I wish I was playing it a little better, but it's still nice to have that comfort level here."
The coaches and Harper both realize that the error-free second half of his round created positive momentum ahead of the final round on Wednesday.
"Tomorrow will be a day when we'll look for him to take as many birdie chances as he can get, and hopefully shoot something really low," said Davidson. "It's been a treat for me to be able to walk with him, and we hope for a great round tomorrow."
Looking ahead to the final round, Harper is confident in his ability to submit a score in the low numbers, with only few minor tweaks keeping him from an under-par round.
"I have to hit it a bit closer tomorrow, but my strategy is solid," said Harper. "I'm executing a lot of shots like I want to. But I have to limit my mistakes, and make a few more putts, and that's about it."
Harper will enter the final round Wednesday at 6-over-par. He will need a round like his back nine on Tuesday to be in contention to advance to the NCAA national championship later this month.
The Grady Sports Bureau is part of the sports media program at the University of Georgia's Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.