SEA ISLAND, Ga. – The Jones Cup Invitational annually hosts one of the best fields in amateur golf. This year, nine of the top 50 players in World Amateur Golf Ranking are teeing it up at Ocean Forest Golf Club, including defending champion Braden Thornberry, who is the top-ranked player in the field at No. 3.
Yet, on a demanding Friday along Georgia’s southern coast it was the world’s 418th-ranked amateur who performed the best in difficult conditions.
Jake Fendt was the only player to finish the first 18 holes under par as temperatures never got above 60 degrees and consistent 15- to 20-mph winds made it feel even colder. The Kennesaw State junior shot 2-under 70 and leads by two shots over three players: Georgia’s Spencer Ralston, Lipscomb’s Eric Ansett and College of Charleston’s Michael Sass.
Much better than Fendt’s performance a year ago when he tied for 32nd and never shot better than 75.
“The most important thing I learned from last year is just to keep the ball in front of you,” Fendt said. “… You’re just trying to leave yourself with a realistic par chance on every hole.”
It helped that Fendt was able to card four birdies, too. He opened his round with a bogey at the par-4 10th hole, which played into the wind and forced its share of big numbers, including a quadruple-bogey-9 by Alabama’s Davis Riley. But Fendt bounced back with birdies at Nos. 14 and 15, each coming from 35-plus feet.
He made a 20-footer at the par-4 seventh, as well.
“I was just fortunate to make a lot of long putts,” Fendt said.
Fendt, who is from Suwanee, Ga., didn’t start playing golf seriously until he was 11 years old. He committed to Kennesaw State as a sophomore in high school, and wasn’t recruited by the state’s top programs, Georgia and Georgia Tech.
But he enjoyed a nice start to his junior season last fall, finishing as the Owls’ best finisher in four of five events. He posted four top-10s, didn’t finish outside the top 20 in any of his starts and led the team in scoring average (71.5).
“My best semester yet,” Fendt said.
The scoring average on Friday at Ocean Forest was 78.14. Just one eagle was made – LSU signee Garrett Barber knocked a 2-iron onto the green at the par-5 14th and made the putt. The par-4 12th hole yielded just one birdie.
“Any hole that’s not downwind is pretty hard out here,” said Vanderbilt’s Will Gordon, who shot 2-over 74.
Defending champion Braden Thornberry of Ole Miss also shot 74, though he lost two shots on the day’s toughest hole, the par-3 fifth, which played to 0.78 strokes over par. Not only did high winds make hitting tee balls close to the hole, but putting was equally difficult. Thornberry, known for his short game, three-putted from 20 feet. The double followed a bogey on the par-4 fourth.
Still, Thornberry salvaged a good round by also making four birdies, including three on par-5s and another on his final hole of the day, the par-3 ninth.
“That was a little frustrating after grinding all day and then giving three shots away in basically 20 minutes,” Thornberry said, “but I was proud I was able to birdie the next hole and then finish with a birdie, so a little momentum going into tomorrow.”
Weather conditions will be slightly better on Saturday, but Sunday’s forecast includes a 90-percent chance of rain. Barber said it’s important for players to embrace the conditions and that this kind of weather “makes this tournament what it is.”
The Jones Cup is certainly one of the most mentally demanding tests in amateur golf. Patrick Reed won the 2010 event in a playoff over Victor Dubuisson after both players shot 6 over in 54 holes.
As for what score will win this year…
“I’d say anywhere around even par has a chance,” Barber said.
Which is why Fendt’s opening 70 was so crucial.