N.C. State’s Stephen Franken stood on the first tee at 7:33 a.m. Wednesday at Lonnie Poole Golf Course determined to play well, score well, in the final round of the NCAA Raleigh Regional.
After a hooked drive and two whiffed shots, after twice taking drops for unplayable lies, the 2018 ACC player of the year put a “9” on his score card — a quadruple bogey on the 578-yard, par-5 first hole.
“And I made a putt from 25 feet for the 9,” he later said.
Just like that the pressure was on Franken and the Wolfpack. But Franken would handle it well. So would the Pack, which finished third in the 54-hole regional on its home course to advance to the 2018 NCAA Championship, set for May 25-30 at Oklahoma State’s Karsten Creek Golf Club in Stillwater, Okla.
Texas won the regional with a 39-under 813 team score as senior Doug Ghim, the low amateur this year in the Masters, took medalist honors by three shots. Duke was second at 22-under 830 and the Pack was at 831, earning its first NCAA Championship trip since 2011.
The top five teams in the 14-team regional qualified — Augusta and Arizona State taking the final two spots. Left behind was fifth-ranked Georgia Tech, the ACC champion, which missed out by one shot. No. 9 California also failed to advance as did Campbell and Davidson.
After Franken’s opening 9, any score was possible. But the junior from Raleigh played the final 17 holes in 5 under par — six birdies, one bogey — for a 1-under 70.
Sophomore Benjamin Shipp, whose 64 on Tuesday set a Wolfpack school record for low NCAA round, also had a 70 to finish third individually. Freshman Easton Paxton had the team's low score with a 68 and junior Harrison Rhodes of Raleigh a 71. Franken finished fifth individually.
Waiting by the 18th green was first-year head coach Press McPhaul and Richard Sykes, who retired last year after 46 years as the Pack’s coach but said he was still nervous watching the team finish up.
McPhaul, who once played for Sykes, said resiliency has been a team theme throughout the year. He noted there’s always the danger of feeling too comfortable on your home course, saying his players “listened to the noise but put their heads down and did the work."
Franken said as a freshman he had an 11 on the final hole in a tournament at Lonnie Poole. But this was different. This was an NCAA regional and his team was counting on him.
Franken called the first hole a “horror story.” His drive bounced into some weeds next to a tree. After two swings and misses, he took an unplayable lie. His next shot landed near a bush, forcing another one-shot penalty for an unplayable lie.
“I have four things written down in my yardage book,” Franken said. “The first is ‘trust myself.’ The second is ‘love myself as Christ loved me.’ The third is to ‘focus on only what I can control’ and the fourth ‘be humble and grateful.’”
With that in mind, Franken waved off McPhaul at the second tee, saying, “I’m all right, I’ve got this.” He parred the par-3 second hole, then birdied the par-4 third.
The rest of the round was much like his first two — an opening 65, then a 69. It also was a continuation of what has been a very solid year for the former Millbrook High golfer.
Franken recently shared medalist honors in a U.S. Open local qualifier at Duke Golf Club, shooting a 4-under 68. He’ll attempt to qualify for the U.S. Open in the June 4 sectional in Columbus, Ohio.
Franken was named a semifinalist for the 2018 Jack Nicklaus Player of the Year award, and has been selected for the U.S. team for the Arnold Palmer Cup competition in France this summer.
“I’ve put in so much hard work the last six or seven years,” Franken said. “It’s been a lot of hard work and freeing up mentally.
“It's been fun but there has been adversity. Today was like a synopsis of my year. Adversity, but being resilient.”
Franken, looking to the NCAA Championships, said it would be a “good proving ground" for the Pack, then added, “We want to go kick some butt in Oklahoma.”