Rodgers rallies at AJGA ToC; Park leads by 2
JOHNSON, Ark. – With the help of a few spectators, Patrick Rodgers was able to piece together the details, as words like collapse and wide-open and leader became more and more common.
And while it may have taken three rounds, the big names are finally, improbably, spectacularly, atop the leaderboard at the AJGA Rolex Tournament of Champions.
Rodgers, considered an afterthought Thursday after beginning the day 10 shots behind, stormed past a free-falling Sam Straka with a 3-under 69 to grab the lead during an unpredictable third round at Blessings Golf Club. Rodgers sits at 2-under 214, one shot ahead of Thunderbird champion Anthony Paolucci.
“It would have been a long shot for me to take the lead today, but I knew I was right there, even though I was 10 shots back,” said Rodgers, who won the Western Junior on June 25. “I played very, very solid today, and I can’t be disappointed at all with how I played.”
Especially not in these conditions, which were made more difficult when the tees were pushed back, the wind swept through the oaks at Blessings Golf Club and the greens grew firmer, faster and began to lose their color. All of which led to a treacherous day for scoring, as only four players shot under par, none better than Rodgers’ 69.
“To shoot 3 under today was an awesome round,” he said.
Straka came untracked early, as he was assessed a two-stroke penalty on the second hole, leading to a triple bogey, and every facet of his game betrayed him en route to an 87 – 21 shots higher than his remarkable second round, which included a back-nine 28.
“Yesterday I started off bad but was able to turn it around,” Straka said, “and today I started bad and it just got worse.”
Straka’s stunning collapse opened the door for a handful of players, including his playing partners, Shane Lebow and Drew Czuchry, who began the day five back. But after sharing the lead at the turn, Lebow played his next four holes in 9 over and sank to an 83.
Czuchry, meanwhile, struggled to a 76, but two late birdies on the back nine put him back in the tournament in solo third, two shots back of Rodgers.
“You saw what the scores did today,” Czuchry said, “and you can play good and still shoot a couple over par.”
Rodgers made only one mistake Thursday, when he left his second shot in the bunker on the par-3 10th. After that bogey, he made a crucial up-and-down on the 14th, where he hit his worst drive of the week, into the knee-high fescue bordering the fairway. After chopping out short of the green, he made a slippery 10-footer to save par and preserve his lead.
“That was huge for me,” Rodgers said, “because I hit a wayward shot and was able to get away with it.”
Paolucci began the third round with hopes of trimming his deficit in half, from 10 shots to five. When told the leaders had dropped back to the field, Paolucci played the hardest stretch on the golf course – Nos. 10-14 – in even par, birdied the 15th and eagled No. 16, after his soaring 8-iron landed 10 feet from the cup. He’s now one back.
“I really thought I was kind of leaning toward being out of the tournament, trying to get a top-5 finish,” Paolucci said. “But everything came together, and here I am.”
Playing arguably the toughest venue ever to host an AJGA invitational, those in contention agree that one hole, one swing, one thought can send the leaderboard into flux.
“This golf course is way too difficult to play off somebody else,” Paolucci said. “We’re all right back in it.”
• • •
Kristen Park didn’t care to watch where her tee shot ended up on the 15th hole Thursday at Blessings Golf Club. Figuring she’d played a safe shot to the middle of the green, some 15 feet from the pin, she dropped her 6-iron back in her bag and headed toward the green.
Then she heard the screams: A walk-off hole-in-one.
“I just thought it was good,” Park said. “But I heard my mom yelling, and I knew something had happened.”
The ace gave Park enough cushion to take a two-stroke lead entering the final round of the AJGA Rolex Tournament of Champions. At 3-over 219, Park is two shots clear of U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links champion Emily Tubert and USC-bound Rachel Morris.
“It was perfect timing,” said Park, the 2007 U.S. Girls’ Junior champion. “I didn’t really have any momentum, and that kind of got me started.”
And it was just the beginning of a frantic final hour.
A few minutes after her hole-in-one, Park striped her tee shot down the fairway at the par-5 16th, giving herself a perfect angle to attack the green with her third shot.
Or so she thought.
Park took the wrong line on her lay-up and launched it “way into the forest,” leading to a double bogey. On the daunting 17th, which plays some 100 feet downhill, Park nearly made another ace, her tee shot landing 2 feet from the cup for another birdie. And on the 18th, her approach plugged in the greenside bunker, and she couldn’t convert the 15-foot par putt.
In the end, it was a 1-over 73 in increasingly difficult conditions.
“I’m pretty pleased,” she said. “That other stuff, it’s a done deal, I guess.”
Twice a winner on the AJGA, Park will be in search of her first invitational victory when she tees it up in the final pairing Friday morning with Tubert and Morris.
Tubert, who shared the lead after 36 holes, went out in 5-over 42 and missed seven birdie putts inside 20 feet on the back nine. She settled for a 75 that left her two strokes back, tied with Morris, who made only two pars on the back side en route to a 73.
“I made a lot of birdies, and overall I played pretty solid,” said Morris, playing her final AJGA event. “I had to be a little more aggressive, and that’s a tough thing to do with all the trouble around here.”
Moriya Jutanugarn found no such trouble. Jutanugarn, whose sister, Ariya, earned medalist honors in stroke-play qualifying at last week’s WAPL, ran off five birdies on the back nine for a 5-under 67, four shots better than the next-best score in the girls division. She is now four shots behind Park.
Victoria Tanco, who vaulted into contention after a sizzling 66 in Round 2, is now five shots back after a third-round 75.