EAST MANATEE -- Despite playing in a conference that isn't traditionally known for its prowess on the links, Illinois entered the 2015 NCAA Division I Men's Golf Championship as one of the tournament's most experienced and talented teams.
In each of the past two seasons, the Fighting Illinii have reached the match play portion of the NCAA Championships -- the top eight teams after 72 holes advance to Tuesday's quarterfinals -- and finished second to Alabama in 2014. Even when the Illini weren't contending for the team title, they had some of the top individuals -- Thomas Pieters won the national title in 2012 and Scott Langley won the championship in 2010.
After 18 holes at The Concession Golf Club, No. 4 Illinois is atop the leaderboard in both categories. As a team, the Fighting Illini are 2 under and a pair of strokes ahead of No. 33 Georgia. Individually, Illini junior Thomas Detry is tied with USF freshman Claudio Correa, who ranks 74th, at minus 4.
Detry, the No. 26 player in the tournament, didn't take long to make a dent on the leaderboard. After shooting pars on the first two holes, Detry eagled No. 3 to jump start his day.
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After slogging through a practice round Thursday that he said lasted about seven hours, the quick start was something he needed to post a low score Friday.
"That kind of got me into my round and I got in the zone," Detry said, "and I just kept hitting fairways and greens."
He made it through the grueling second half of the front nine and birdied the first four holes on the back to reach 6 under. After a pair of bogeys on Nos. 15 and 16, he finished his round with two straight birdies.
If Detry can hang around near the top of the leaderboard through the weekend he expects he'll get a text message from Pieters, who is now playing on the European PGA Tour. Detry said he lives about 30 minutes away from the 2012 national champion back home in Belgium and he has leaned on his mentorship throughout his college career.
"He's like my big brother," Detry said. "He's a big part of the reason I'm playing for Illinois."
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You don't have to look far to find the first former IMG Academy golfer on the NCAA Championships leaderboard. Like, the first name is far enough.
Correa arrived in Bradenton in 2012. Although he never played The Concession while he was at IMG, his time as an Ascender has had a profound effect on the leaderboard at the NCAA Championships. The Bulls are in a tie for eighth place at 6 over with a pair of former IMG golfers on the roster.
USF sophomore Rigel Fernandez, however, had an underwhelming opening round. The No. 47 player in the tournament shot 6-over par, tied for USF's worst score, and sits 10 strokes out of Correa's lead.
By his standards, Cheng-Tsung Pan's first round was a disappointment, although he was really only two shots away from sitting near the top of the leaderboard. The Washington senior and No. 4 player in the country ended up even, but only after hitting two shots into the water on No. 5 and triple bogeying the hole.
Two other former Ascenders sit even further down the leaderboard. Florida state redshirt sophomore Cristobal Del Solar is tied for 108th at 6 over, and Texas Tech freshman Mito Pereira is tied for 125th at plus-seven.
Life as an individual without teammates at the NCAA Championships can be lonely. For one hole, though, Gudmundur Kristjansson was the coolest person at The Concession.
Kristjansson, a junior at East Tennessee State, holed out from the tee on the par-3 sixth hole Friday, giving him the only hole-in-one of the first round.
Only seven other players even birdied No. 6, which features a green just beyond a patch of swampy water 183 yards from the hole, while seven others double-bogeyed. The hole was the ninth most difficult of the round in terms of average distance from par.
Kristjansson, meanwhile, finished 6 over and in a tie for 108th.