Local Orischak among 4 tied for Players Am lead

BLUFFTON, S.C. – Andrew Orischak, a sophomore at Hilton Head Island High School, is chronically late to last period.

To get to that class, Orischak has to walk past history teacher Todd White’s classroom. It was White who last fall took a turn on the U.S. Walker Cup squad that defeated Great Britain and Ireland at National Golf Links in Southampton, N.Y. Needless to say, White and Orischak can generally find something to talk about, which almost always stalls Orischak. The sophomore doesn't hold it against him.

“He’s been a good friend,” said Orischak, who, despite his love for history, has yet to take one of White’s classes.

Orischak, 15, and White, 46, are the two best local bets in the Players Amateur field at Berkeley Hall Golf Club this week. White has played in the event 12 times since it was founded 15 years ago, but Orishak teed it up Thursday for the first time courtesy of a local exemption extended to him by tournament directors.

Thursday, Orischak bookended his round with birdies and added three more against a bogey in the middle. His 4-under 68 gave him an early lead that was matched by three more players as the day wore on – Matt NeSmith, Tae Koh and Geoff Drakeford. White opened with 1-over 73.

Asked how he knew about Orischak – who reports hanging around the Players for the past few years, taking it all in – tournament co-founder Duke Delcher simply replied with a smile, “We do our research.”

The opportunity wasn’t lost on Orischak, who carries himself with immense composure for a 15-year-old.

“I had a lot of people stick their neck out for me,” he said. To win as a local would pay it all back.

For Orischak, the Players Amateur is the most elite tournament of his young career. Earlier this summer, he advanced to U.S. Open sectional qualifying, but missed advancing out of the Ansley Golf Club qualifier in Roswell, Ga., by seven shots. Orischak tied for fourth at the 2013 Jones Cup Junior and tied for 11th at the AJGA FootJoy Invitational earlier this year. Playing at Long Cove Club on nearby Hilton Head Island has helped shape Orischak’s game because of its uncharacteristic undulation for Lowcountry golf.

“It’s a very difficult course,” Orischak said.

It’s unusual to be invited to the Players at such a young age, and Orischak is unlike most of the field in that he hasn’t committed to a college yet. Most of his competitors are already carrying bags with university logos. Orischak is considering colleges, but says he doesn’t have a dream school. So far, he has made unofficial visits to North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia.

Orischak was able to score Thursday at Berkeley Hall despite driving the ball somewhat wildly. Many a player described this course’s best defense as the deep, wiry rough that lined fairways.

Co-leader NeSmith, playing this event for the fourth time in his career, called that rough unpredictable. Normally, a ball buried in rough like that is untouchable, and best played with a safe chip back to the fairway. When NeSmith, a South Carolina junior, first played here, the rough was so thick that it was the only option.

“With the rough the height it is, it sits down but it gives you a chance to go for it,” NeSmith explained. “If you do and you get your yardage wrong, you’re going to be dead. It gives you that extra option to go for it, but it makes it lot tougher because you can’t put any spin on the ball.”

NeSmith came up short on approach shots from the rough at Nos. 2 and 17 Thursday, and made his only bogey of the day at the latter. He had five birdies to go with it.

For NeSmith, in an entirely different boat than young Orischak, an opening 68 was a welcome change from the not-quite-sharp summer play he has been battling. NeSmith was displeased with his play at NCAA regionals and nationals last month.

“I went home and sat down and looked at how to fix it,” NeSmith said. “I’m on a little hot stretch and I can’t wait for it to keep going.”

NeSmith’s solution was to log as many rounds as he could at his old home course, Houndslake Country Club in Aiken, S.C. It’s a short, tight course, maxing out at about 6,400 yards. It taught NeSmith to be accurate with his driver and shaped his wedges into the most reliable part of his game. Plus, a good round at Houndslake often results in a round in the mid-60s for NeSmith, which builds confidence.

“You’re reinforcing some good numbers,” NeSmith said.

International players Tae Koh, of New Zealand, and Geoff Drakeford, of Australia, also posted rounds of 68 Thursday to get a share of the lead. Five players are close behind at 3-under 69, including defending champion Hunter Stewart, Stanford’s Maverick McNealy, Georgia’s Nicholas Reach, Rochester’s Nicholas Palladino and Australian Ben Eccles.

The chase is the most sentimental, perhaps, for defending champion Stewart. The Players win defined his year, but it’s already been a different kind of return trip.

“Everybody is talking to you at the beginning of the week instead of later when you play nice,” he said.

Another 54 holes of niceties would put Stewart in a very familiar – and nice – spot.

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