MUSCLE SHOALS, AL – Florida Southern's opening round score of -7 was a good start to the NCAA Division II Men's Golf Championships, though head coach Doug Gordin didn't call it a great one since another team was still leading. Make no mistake, he's not playing for second, and it's that type of perspective that has driven the Moccasins to six previous national titles in his tenure and has them in position to win another one. Their opening-round score is also a reminder of how good the competition is this year, and it provides a point of emphasis when Gordin talks about what the Moccasins will need to do over the next four days in order for them to repeat as champions.
The seven-under-par 281 has Florida Southern in third place so far, two shots behind West Florida and one behind Indianapolis. The Moccasins are three up on Arkansas Tech, and five up on Barry, the last of the five teams to break par in Monday's opening round. The last time the Moccasins had a score this good at a national tournament was 1999, when they wrapped up one of their previous championships with a -11 in Valdosta, and Monday's score is the third best they've ever had at the national finals.
"Overall, I feel good about the way we started," said Gordin. "Though I was disappointed we had a bogey and a double-bogey on a par-five, which you cannot do, I was pleased with the patience those guys showed after that, and how they came back from it."
At the end of the day, the Moccasins counted a six-under-par 66 from John VanDerLaan, who holds the individual lead by two strokes over five other golfers, a one-under-par 71 from Michael VanDerLaan, and a pair of 72s from John Coultas and Jacob Penny. Christian Anderson shot a 75 as the Mocs' fifth golfer.
Starting on the back nine in the later waves, the Moccasins' early target for first place was a -4 turned in by Arkansas Tech and they matched that score halfway through their own round. First off the tees were Anderson and Michael VanDerLaan and they provided the Mocs a steady run of pars in the early going until Coultas, Penny and John VanDerLaan made their way through the first few holes. Among the early highlights was a nice up-and-down by Michael VanDerLaan on 10, and a good recovery by Anderson on 17 when he parred the hole even after an errant tee shot. Coming right behind him on that hole was Michael VanDerLaan, who cleared the water to pick up his first birdie of the day and make the turn at -1.
Playing third was Coultas, and he was one of the golfers Gordin referenced when it came to players who came back from adversity. The senior All-American bogeyed his first hole and had the Mocs' lone double-bogey on the par-5 No. 12 when his tee shot was lost in the tall grass to the left of the fairway. That penalty resulted in a 7 on the hole and put him at +3 through the first three holes, but Coultas was three-under the rest of the day with four birdies that got him back to even-par by the end of the round.
Penny had a matching score that included two birdies and two bogeys, but Michael VanDerLaan did them one better with his 71 (-1). The junior notched his second birdie of the day on 4, and later hit another nice chip shot that helped him save par on 8. That was one of his 17 holes he either parred or birdied, the most for the Moccasins in round one.
Meanwhile, his brother John strung together five straight birdies from 12 through 16, knocking down a series of putts that were all within 10 feet of the cup that offset a bogey on his first hole of the day. He turned at -4, and rebounded from a bogey on the par-5 No. 1 with three more birdies in the second half to close at -6. His eight birdies tied him for the tournament lead with Zach James of Southeastern Oklahoma State, and only two other golfers had as many as six. That helped VanDerLaan post the Mocs' best score at a national finals since Jude Eustaquio had a seven-under-ar 63 in 2008.
James was one of the five golfers who were two strokes behind VanDerLaan, a group that included two from West Florida, Chandler Blanchet and Henry Westmoreland. That pair of 68s helped the Argonauts turn in a team score of 279, with them also counting a 72 from Jacob Huizinga and a 71 from Carlos Marrero. Marrero is a freshman playing in his first tournament of the season and even had an eagle on the par-5 No. 7, a critical shot that in essence has West Florida in the lead.
"We'll need to play a little better than we did today, at least in terms of the competition, if not the score," said Gordin. "We need to get better each day because that's what the good teams do. I'm looking forward to being one of the first ones out there Tuesday morning."
The Moccasins will play in the first wave for round two, with their tee times ranging from 7:20 to 8:04.