Murray, Levonowich take lead at Pine Needles

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SOUTHERN PINES, N.C. – Rain, wind and weather delays couldn’t knock Grayson Murray off his game at the Golfweek Junior Series event at Pine Needles Saturday. The 16-year-old from nearby Raleigh, N.C., holds a three-shot lead over Richard Fountain and Michael Werenski.

Murray got off to a hot start before a steady downpour set in while he was playing the ninth hole, going 3 under in his first four holes. After birdieing the par-5 first hole, Murray holed out from a greenside bunker on the par-3 third and made a 15-footer for birdie on the par-4 fourth.

“I knew the rain was coming so I wanted to get off to as good a start as I could so I just kept it going for the rest of the day and got through the rain,” he said.

Murray, No. 25 in the Golfweek/Titleist Junior Rankings, had his only bogey at the par-4 sixth – the No. 1 handicap hole – after leaving his approach shot on the front of the green and three-putting.

Play was suspended for about 30 minutes right after Murray’s group made the turn, but the wet conditions didn’t affect his play. A black cloud seems to follow Murray when he tees it up at Pine Needles, as his last three three rounds at the course have been wet. The experiences made Murray more confident, knowing he could score well on the course in rainy conditions.

Murray also had a strong summer to reflect on, with appearances at the U.S. Amateur and U.S. Junior. At 15, Murray was also the youngest player to advance to U.S. Open sectional qualifying in June.

“Just the experience that I’ll take away from this summer, I didn’t do my best in some of those events that I qualifed for but at least I was there at my age,” Murray said. “Not many 15-year-olds could say that they were there playing in those events.”

Murray was the only player to break par after Round 1. Fountain, also of Raleigh, N.C., matched three birdies with three bogeys, and Werenski, of South Hadley, Mass., had two birdies and two bogeys to each shoot even par.

Werenski, 15, enrolled at the Hank Haney International Junior Golf Academy in August and won an International Junior Golf Tour event each of the last two weeks. He shot a personal-best 68 at Oyster Reef Golf Club in Hilton Head, S.C., Oct. 4.

“I’ve been hitting the ball a lot better lately,” Werenski said. “I haven’t been putting that great but I usually hit 13 or 14 greens a round.”

Jonathan DiIanni is in fourth place with a 1-over 72, and three more players are tied for fifth at 3-over 74.

In the girls division, Minami Levonowich, 16, lead the field with a 5-over 76 that included just one birdie. It was a rare round for Levonowich, who said she usually records a higher number of birdies. Levonowich, who had three top-5 finishes in AJGA events this summer, is in unfamiliar territory after her first round.

“I’ve won tournaments before, but usually from behind,” she said. “I’m used to playing not in the lead.”

After three years at the Hank Haney International Junior Golf Academy, Levonowich made the switch this year to the Junior Players Golf Academy to get more individual attention. She’s now concentrating on improving her short game, and might be the only player hoping for a soggy second round.

“I actually really love the rain and I hope it rains tomorrow,” she said. “It’s my advantage.”

Brooke Kochevar, a 15-year-old from Glen Ellyn, Ill., is in second place at 6-over 77, and Scotland Preston, of Mountainside, N.J., is one back at 7-over 78. Even though Preston finished her round before the rain set in, the 16-year-old lingered on the putting green despite a steady drizzle to work on her short game.

“I feel like I could improve a lot tomorrow,” she said.

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