Benjamin up early at Northeast Amateur

RUMFORD, R.I. – Brad Benjamin took advantage of a morning tee time when the wind was almost non-existent and grabbed the first-round lead Wednesday in the 49th Northeast Amateur Championship.

Benjamin, the 2009 U.S. Amateur Public Links winner, made five birdies against a lone bogey for a 4-under 65 at Wannamoisett Country Club.

He holds a one-shot lead over Steve Ziegler, Cheng-Tsung Pan and Mike Ballo, all of whom played in the windier afternoon.

Ziegler’s round consisted of four birdies and a bogey; Ballo had five birdies and a pair of bogeys; and Pan, who started at No. 10 and ran off four straight birdies from holes 14-17, had five birdies and two bogeys.

Overall, 14 players finished the first round under par, and 12 shot par.

Starting on the 10th hole, Benjamin, who tied for third earlier this month at the Sunnehanna Amateur, made birdies at Nos. 12, 13 and 17 to turn in 3-under 32. After a bogey at the first hole, he added birdies at Nos. 2 and 9.

“I kept it in the fairways, for the most part, and that’s what you have to do out here because the rough is so difficult,” said Benjamin, from Rockford, Ill., and winner of last year’s Illinois Open. “I made five birdies, and four of those came on putts of 8 feet or less. So my birdies came kind of easily.

“The pin placements were pretty difficult, and you really had to be careful,” Benjamin said. “But I think I was able to play the hard holes well, and that was big.”

After completing his college career at Memphis last June, Benjamin had planned to turn pro last fall. However, after winning the U.S. Amateur Public Links and gaining an invitation to play in this year’s Masters, he put those plans on hold.

He spent the winter in South Carolina working on his game and said he “decided to stay an amateur through the summer and take advantage of playing in these great tournaments on these great golf courses.”

One tournament he won’t be playing in is next month’s Public Links. After playing and practicing at a private club in South Carolina, he’s no longer eligible to the USGA event geared for public-course players.

Brooks Koepka of Lake Worth, Fla., opened with an even-par 69. But it was about as crazy as any ever-par round you will ever see.

A sophomore at Florida State last season, Koepka, starting on the 10th hole, birdied the 10th from just off the green, added another at 11, made a pair of 20-foot putts for birdies at 13 and 14, sank a 40-footer to save par at 15, and knocked in a 15-footer for birdie at 17, the course’s only par 5. It put him in the lead at 5 under.

After making par at Nos. 1 and 2, Koepka’s round fell apart. He bogeyed Nos. 3-5, made double at No. 6 after a three-putt, birdied the seventh, and bogeyed the eighth with another three-putt.

“It was one of those ridiculous days,” Koepka said. “I was making so many putts on my first nine it was almost comical. Then on the front side, nothing seemed to go right. I went from a dream to a nightmare.

“Still, overall, even par is not too bad to start this tournament,” Koepka said. “Looking back on it, I think I maybe should have been 2 or 3 under, but that’s the way it goes.”

Jake Katz of Williamsville, N.Y., had a hole-in-one. The Binghamton University golfer holed out a 196-yard, 5-iron shot at No. 15. He shot 4-over 73.

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