5 Things: Whitsett, Penner deadlocked in El Paso

Alabama's Cory Whitsett, left, and UNLV's Kevin Penner are tied for the lead after two rounds.

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EL PASO, Texas – The Western Refining All-America Golf Classic’s first two rounds were played Monday at El Paso Country Club. A familiar name, and one trying to earn more recognition, are tied for the lead with one round remaining in college golf’s all-star game. Defending champion Cory Whitsett (66-65) of Alabama and UNLV senior Kevin Penner (65-66) are your co-leaders after two rounds at El Paso Country Club. Here’s 5 Things you need to know from the first day of play:

• • •

1. ON THE DEFENSIVE: Whitsett is trying to become just the second player to win this event multiple times. Clemson’s Chris Patton, who also won the 1989 U.S. Amateur, won the Western Refining in ’88 and ’89. Whitsett was a second-team All-American last season, but entered this event at No. 112 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings.

He said his success Monday was a matter of the mind. “I was playing too much ‘golf swing’ and not enough golf this fall,” Whitsett said. On the urging of Alabama assistant coach Rob Bradley, Whitsett read Bob Rotella’s book, “Golf Is Not A Game of Perfect,” on the trip to El Paso. That book, as well as the holiday season, helped Whitsett play well. “It’s Thanksgiving, I’m going to see my family soon. I’m just in a relaxed state of mind.”

• • •

2. NICE PEN-MANSHIP: Penner was an All-American for the first time last season, earning honorable-mention honors after winning twice (Wyoming Desert Classic, Gene Miranda Falcon Invitational). Penner, who also won this summer’s Sahalee Players Championship, is making the most of his first trip to El Paso.

He was bogey-free Monday, the first time he’s been without a blemish on a 36-hole day. “I just continue to get more consistent,” Penner, No. 27 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings, said about his gradual improvement throughout his college career. “My wedges and putter have definitely improved. I was a poor wedge player growing up.”

• • •

3. ON THE PURSUIT: Three players are tied for third, three strokes behind the co-leaders: Kent State’s Corey Conners (67-67), Cal’s Max Homa (66-68) and Texas A&M’s Cameron Peck (67-67).

Conners is No. 16 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings, while Homa is 17th and Peck is 117th. Homa was a third-team All-American last year, while Conners and Peck were honorable-mention selections.

Homa celebrated his 22nd birthday Monday. “This is a huge event,” he said. “It’s nice to be in good position, especially on my birthday.”

Conners finished fourth at last year’s NCAA Championship and was the Mid-American Conference player of the year. He won this season’s Gopher Invitational.

Peck, a former U.S. Junior champ, is making a comeback from stress fractures in his back that kept him from making a full swing between April and August. He missed the 2012 postseason, and didn’t make full swings until two weeks before the fall season.

“I was just so wild,” Peck said about his first events after his return. “I was hitting the ball everywhere.” He finished ninth at last year’s All-America Golf Classic, and said his experience at El Paso Country Club helped him Monday. “I knew where to put the ball,” he said.

• • •

4. STARS STRUGGLE: Alabama’s Justin Thomas and Stanford’s Patrick Rodgers are longtime friends, having grown up about 2 1/2 hours apart in Kentucky and Indiana, respectively. At Nos. 4 and 6 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings, they entered this week as the field’s two highest-ranked players. They shared a cart Monday, and the same score, though it wasn’t what they hoped for. Both are T-15 at 3 under, eight shots off the lead. “It wasn’t the dream day we were hoping for,” Rodgers said.

Rodgers shot 70-69, while Thomas shot 72-67.

• • •

5. SHORT SHOTS: Yes, they use carts, and there are only 23 players in the field, but pace of play was something college coaches could smile about. The first group – the twosome of Nova Southeastern’s Ben Taylor and Oklahoma’s Will Kropp – played 36 holes in 6 hours, 46 minutes, an average of 3:23 per round. Taylor, the reigning D-II player of the year, is holding his own against the nation’s elite. He’s T-13 at 4 under (71-67). ... UCLA’s Anton Arboleda is alone in sixth place at 7 under after shooting 70-65. His second round matched the day’s low round. Penner, Whitsett and Arkansas’ Sebastian Cappelen also shot 65. Cappelen is T-7 after shooting 72-65. ... U.S. Amateur champion Steven Fox of Chattanooga and NCAA champion Thomas Pieters of Illinois are both T-7 after shooting 70-67. They played with Whitsett in one of Monday’s featured pairings. ... Cal’s Brandon Hagy, who won Sunday’s long-drive competition with a 362-yard tee shot, is T-7 after shooting 69-68. Hagy was in Monday’s other featured pairing along with Thomas and Rodgers. Hagy, at No. 11 in Golfweek’s rankings, is the third-highest-ranked player in the field.

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