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PROVO — Cole Ponich dropped a birdie on the par-4, 450-yard 15th hole to get to 1-under on the day and was met by … well, mostly silence.
There were no galleries and only the occasional fellow NCAA Tournament golfer passed by during a practice round Thursday afternoon at Grayhawk Golf Club in Scottsdale, Arizona, the site of the NCAA men's golf tournament.
For most of the players on the course, Thursday was nothing but a practice round, a tuneup before the real thing begins Friday morning. But for BYU, this one counted.
Ponich, who starred at Davis High, shot 1-under 69 to lead the Cougars to a team score of 10-over 290 Thursday, a score that will count as BYU's third round officially submitted Sunday in the Cougars' bid for the program's first national championship since 1981.
David Timmins and Max Brenchley each shot 3-over 73, while Carson Lundell — the winner of the NCAA's Stockton regional just over a week ago — added 5-over 75, and freshman Tyson Shelley a 76.
Then, they went back to their hotel, maybe grabbed a bite of dinner and watched some film or otherwise recovered, and prepared to do it all again Friday morning — this time for real, but with every other team and golfer on the course counting a formal score, too.
"It's really hard to know how our scores today will stack up against the other teams' rounds come Sunday," said BYU director of golf Todd Miller in a university release. "This is a resilient team and I expect to see great things out of them the next few days. I feel like our guys did a much better job handling the pressure of the opening round than we have in the past."
The Cougars will tee it up with the rest of the field Friday for the 72-hole championship event that includes three rounds of match play to decide the individual and team championships. That includes a full Utah squad making its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1988 after finishing fifth at the Oklahoma-led Norman Regional.
Reigning Utah state amateur champion Martin Leon will open the Utes' flight at 9 a.m. MDT, followed by Braxton Watts, Tristan Mandur, Javier Barcos and Blake Tomlinson in a pairing that includes Georgia Southern and the College of Charleston.
"I'm so proud of what this team accomplished. It has been our goal all year, and recently we haven't been playing as well as we would have liked. Today we got off to a rough start, but really turned it on in the middle stretch of our round," Utah coach Garrett Clegg said. "Our team has been great all year at hitting the hardest shots on a course and this week was no different. The opening hole today, the 10th, was the hardest hole on the course and we stood up and had five players hit perfect tee shots down the middle of the fairway."
After 54 holes of stroke play, the top 30 teams will advance to two rounds of match play beginning Monday, May 30, with the quarterfinals and semifinals scheduled for Tuesday, May 31 before crowning a champion Wednesday.
The early round has become normal for BYU, the flagship university of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with a longstanding policy of not competing or practicing on Sundays. So instead of forfeiting a round, the NCAA allowed the 41st-ranked Cougars to play Thursday with Sunday's pin positions and as much of the course to Sunday's parameters as possible, and they will simply substitute that score into the third round.
The team received a religious exemption under NCAA policy for their beliefs, but it's not without its disadvantages.
"Our team played incredible golf in Stockton to earn a chance to be here this week," BYU coach Bruce Brockbank said. "We are grateful that the NCAA has worked hard to provide a way for our guys to compete at the highest level of college golf and our team is ready to take advantage of the opportunity."
Among the group, only Lundell, a senior who prepped at Lone Peak, remembers playing the unique Thursday-for-Sunday round at the NCAA Tournament in Fayetteville, Arkansas, in 2019, the last time the program qualified for the national meet. After the season was canceled in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Cougars didn't even sniff the regional round in 2021.
So Thursday's round — however unique or odd or strange as it may have been — was a small price to pay to be able to compete.
"This has definitely been a special season and a special semester," said junior David Timmins, a Brighton High product who played racquetball, spike ball and ran track in high school while also finishing runner-up at the 2015 5A state meet. "Our backs were up against the wall at the end of the fall, and we had to rally in the spring to give ourselves a shot to get to Grayhawk.
"I feel like we've put in the work the last couple of months to be in the top-15. You couldn't ask for a better leader on the team than Carson — that is one hard guy to beat. ... I'm grateful that he's on our squad."
Timmins' career started at Westminster before a mission to Toronto, Ontario, prompted him to transfer to BYU to pursue a career in golf.
"Coming out of high school, I didn't really know if golf was what I wanted to do," Timmins told ESPN radio in Utah County. "I enjoyed it, but it wasn't really the top of my priorities. So I went to Westminster and play at my home track. It was a good fit.
"But I served a mission, and that's where I really learned that I wanted to pursue golf as a living — and I knew to do that, I needed to put myself in a position for the best possibilities. BYU's program speaks for itself, with coach Brockbank and coach Danny Summerhays; those guys know what they're doing. … I grew up bleeding red, but I knew that I need to be at BYU to be around coach Brockbank and Todd Miller."
BYU tees off Friday morning, pairing with Liberty and North Florida in a group that begins at 8:27 a.m. MDT.