JOHNS CREEK, Ga. – Three hundred twelve players. 64 spots. The race for match play at one of the most grueling tests in golf, the 114th U.S. Amateur, kicked off Monday at the Atlanta Athletic Club – with the normal suspects making their presence felt immediately.
As the morning wave finished their collective rounds at both the Highlands and Riverside courses at the site of the 2011 PGA Championship, collegiate All-Americans Robby Shelton, Cheng-Tsung Pan and Denny McCarthy all trailed clubhouse leader and former Georgia standout Lee McCoy (5-under 72) by two shots.
Will Zalatoris, the 2014 U.S. Junior Amateur champ, was also in the group at 3 under.
With potentially seven days of golf ahead of them, experience does help in pacing one’s self in the world’s biggest amateur tournament.
“I can’t win it today, I can’t even win it on Saturday. So just take one step at a time. First goal to make match play, then after that, get in the round of 64, beat that guy. Just one at a time. I can’t win the championship on the first tee either,” said 17-year-old Zalatoris, a Wake Forest commit.
After feeling sluggish in his warm-up session, McCoy caught fire on the back nine on the par-72 Riverside course – considered the easier of the two by many of the players – posting birdies on Nos. 10, 11, 13 and 15 to complete his bogey-free round.
“Once I started hitting it OK, everything kind of changed. I was like, ‘You know what? I can win this thing.’ I started firing at some flags and fortunately it worked out for me today,” said McCoy.
Catching fire late was a theme Monday, as McCarthy was 4 under on his incoming nine while Shelton and Pan were 3 under. McCarthy, for one, pointed to his aggressive nature that allowed him to climb up the leaderboard, choosing not to worry about potential mistakes that could cost him a spot in match play that will start Wednesday.
“I stay aggressive. If I hit my driver like I did today, I think I’m going to be in a really good spot. My mindset for my first couple Ams was, ‘Make match play,’ but this time around, I’m kind of expecting to make match play and eventually make a deep run,” said McCarthy, a senior at Virginia. “Right now I’m just taking it a step at a time and just focus on a shot at a time. But I’m definitely playing well enough to shoot another good round.”
Others believe that a more conservative approach will net them a spot in the field of 64, including SMU junior Bryson Dechambeau, who fired a 1-under 71 to sit inside the top 10 as the afternoon wave hit the course.
“(You) don’t want to be too aggressive; you don’t want to bring doubles into play. You can’t afford to do that if you are going to make the top 64. Once you get into match play, it’s a grind. Day-by-day, round-by-round, shot-by-shot,” said Dechambeau. “You have to stay energized, you have to eat a lot. You have to be mentally ready.”
There were 18 under-par rounds in the morning session, with 15 posting even, including 2014 Western Amateur champ Beau Hossler and veteran amateur Nathan Smith.