Darton eight back after opening day of nationals

Darton golfers Austin McNeill and Joe Sakulpolphaisan

Darton golfers Austin McNeill and Joe Sakulpolphaisan

NEWTON, Kan. — Austin McNeill is used to living in the shadows of teammate Joe Sakulpolphaisan.

In Tuesday’s opening round of the NJCAA Division I national golf tournament, McNeill nearly matched Sakulpolphaisan shot-for-shot.

McNeill fired a 1-under 71 and Sakulpolphaisan, the top-ranked junior college player in the nation, shot a 2-under 70 to keep the Cavs near the lead despite a pair of disappointing rounds from freshmen Chase Jones and Neil Graham.

The Cavs shot 300 as a team at Sand Creek Station Golf Course and are tied for eighth place and eight shots back of the lead after Day 1 of the four day tournament.

“If we can play a little bit better (today) then we can be in the hunt, for sure,” Sakulpolphaisan said. “We had two guys under par. Our Nos. 4 and 5 guys didn’t play well, so if they can play better (today) we will be right there.”

Tuesday would have been a lot worse if not for McNeill and Sakulpolphaisan.

“It’s tough to see two guys shoot under par on this difficult golf course, and the team score still be 300,” Darton coach Bill Jones III said. “But those two held us in there.”

McNeill, the 77th-ranked junior college golfer in the nation, averages nearly five more strokes per round than Sakulpolphaisan.

The only thing that separated the two sophomores on Tuesday was a three-putt by McNeill on No. 18.

“I have been hitting the ball really good the past couple of weeks and was excited to play this week,” said McNeill, who is tied for seventh place. “Being good friends with Joe always pushes me to play better and beat him. It’s kind of an inside goal for myself. Because I know he is going to play well, so if I beat him it means I am playing well, too.”

Sophomore Shad Tuten shot a respectable 5-over 77, but it was Graham’s 10-over 82 and Jones’ 12-over 84 that kept 7th-ranked Darton from starting the tournament on top of the leaderboard.

“There was a little bit of nerves for the freshmen,” Jones said. “I expect them to turn it around (today). I would be very surprised and disappointed if they did what they did (Tuesday) again.”

No one was disappointed with McNeill or Sakulpolphaisan, who combined for four birdies and one bogey. The lone bogey from the duo came on McNeill’s final hole of the day.

Sakulpolphaisan, who recently signed a full scholarship to play next season at Mississippi State, is tied for third and three shots behind leader Jon Paul Blampied of Indian Hills Community College.

Sakulpolphaisan birdied two par 5s — No. 4 and No. 16 — and missed just one green in regulation.

“Joe is usually a really good putter, and he didn’t make anything (Tuesday),” Jones said. “He didn’t putt bad, but he just didn’t make anything. If he hits it like he can the rest of the tournament, I would be surprised if anybody beats him.”

Last year at nationals, Sakulpolphaisan finished runner-up, and the Cavs came in fifth as a team. This year marks their 11th straight trip to nationals, but they are still looking for their first Division I title.

Jones said they are in fine position after 18 holes.

“I have heard (Darton’s Director of Golf Operations and former coach) Dale Dover say it a thousand times, and I have said it a thousand times, ‘You can’t win it on the first day, but you can lose it,’ ” Jones said. “We were a little scared that we had lost it today at first.”

The Cavs were one of the first teams to finish and were in 15th place in the 23-team field midway through the day. But the difficulty of the course — which will play host to the U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship in 2014 — caught up to the rest of the field.

Western Texas, Indian Hills and Midland are all tied atop the leaderboard at 4-over, and the Cavs are withing four shots of the other four teams ahead of them.