Underdogs take early lead at AJGA ToC
AJGA Rolex Tournament of Champions
JOHNSON, Ark. – Sam Straka dragged to the 10th tee Tuesday morning with little rest and even less knowledge of Blessings Golf Club. After all, he was 12 hours removed from a 36-hole U.S. Junior Amateur qualifier, and he just wanted to post a decent number, anything in contention, and see where he stood at day’s end.
Turns out, Straka stacked up well.
Playing this brutal layout for the first time, Straka eagled two of the par 5s, including his final hole of the day, and shot a 3-under 69 to take a one-stroke lead after the first round of the AJGA Rolex Tournament of Champions. He was a shot clear of Shun Yat Hak, Drew Czuchry and Shane Lebow.
“I was just trying to get this round over with,” said Straka, No. 216 in Golfweek’s rankings. “It feels really good, because I definitely didn’t expect it.”
As for the course?
“It’s amazing,” he said. “I’m just blown away. I love it.”
That wasn’t a widely-held belief on Day 1, when only seven players broke par and 30 players shot in the 80s. Straka was the only one in the 60s, a remarkable feat considering his travails the past 24 hours.
Straka, 17, of Valdosta, Ga., played a 36-hole U.S. Junior qualifier Monday at Pinetree Country Club near Atlanta. It appeared to be a fruitless trip after a first-round 74, but he rallied with a 66 in the afternoon to advance to next month’s national championship. He then boarded a 10 p.m. flight to Fayetteville, Ark., arrived at his hotel at 1:30 a.m. and rolled out of bed three hours later, with two hours to prepare for his 7:13 a.m. tee time.
“I guess it turned out pretty well,” Straka said.
Starting on the back nine, he parred his first six holes before eagling the par-5 16th – the same hole that played to a 5.63 stroke average in the first round, with nearly twice as many double bogeys or worse (19) than birdies (10). After a birdie-bogey-bogey stretch on Nos. 4-6, he finished his round with another eagle, on the par-5 ninth.
Now, he’ll sleep on a lead for the first time in his career.
“I’ve been feeling (my game) coming on, leading up to a good round, and that was it,” Straka said.
He has plenty of big names in pursuit, including 2007 U.S. Junior finalist Anthony Paolucci and Patrick Rodgers, who won the Western Junior last week. Rodgers was 3 under through 15 holes, but a poor lay-up led to a bogey on the 16th and a three-putt from 20 feet on No. 17 resulted in another dropped shot.
“I’m right there,” Rodgers said. “It’s a long week, and it’s good to get off to a good start. Hopefully I’ll be able to put up a few more good numbers.”
Straka, meanwhile, is just hoping for another solid round. And maybe a little rest.
“Too tired for nerves, too tired for anything,” he said. “Sleep, sleep and eat. That sounds good.”
• • •
The last player on the course, Samantha Wagner took a deep breath after tapping in her par putt and glanced at the leaderboard for the first time.
Surprise: She was atop a star-studded field of national major winners.
Wagner, at 13 the youngest player in the field, avoided the big numbers that ruined so many of her competitors’ rounds, shooting an even-par 72 Tuesday at Blessings Golf Club to lead in only her second invitational start.
“It is actually really cool,” Wagner said.
She has a one-stroke lead over a quartet of players, most notably Yueer Cindy Feng, winner of the past two invitationals. Lurking two shots back is Emily Tubert, who won the U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links on June 26.
Wagner, of Clermont, Fla., could have moved to 3 under on the back nine, but missed several makeable birdie attempts, including a 10-footer on the 18th. She settled for an even-par round that could have been so much better.
“I just wanted to stay patient,” said Wagner, who just finished seventh grade. “I wasn’t really thinking about (if she was in the lead). The course is really difficult, so I knew the scores weren’t going to be that great.”
Feng is tied for second with Kaira Martin, Kristen Park and Gabriella Then, who birdied Nos. 10-12 to start her round but played the final 15 holes in 5 over.
“I just wanted to keep it consistent and play safely,” said Feng, whose bogey on the par-3 15th dropped her out of the lead. “One bad hole here can ruin your tournament.”
Victoria Tanco, Golfweek’s top-ranked girls player, began her day with a quadruple-bogey 9 on No. 2 and never turned it around, leading to an 83.