ROLAND, Ark. — If Patrick Rodgers were to forego a professional golf career, perhaps he could take his Stanford University education and eventually work in an operating room. On Thursday at The Alotian Club, at least, he displayed some amazing surgical precision on the golf course.
It’s highly unlikely Rodgers will do anything other than turn pro, considering his prodigious talent, as well as the fact he’s already competed as an amateur in the PGA’s John Deere Classic two weeks ago ,where he finished tied for 15th.
Rodgers, who is entering his junior year at Palo Alto, Calif., was dialed in, launching deep drives down the middle of most fairways and coaxing approach shots down slopes to makeable range. He dropped six birdie putts against no bogeys for a 66 and a four-shot lead in the 111th Western Amateur Championship.
He wasn’t really tested for par until the final hole while piling up four birdies on the back nine. His only failure came when he stared at an 8-footer for birdie at the par-5 14th and burned the left edge. Rodgers, who has a Padraig Harrington-like build, made up for it on the par-four No. 15, however, when his back-spinning wedge shot — after a 350-yard drive — nearly hit the pin. This time he made the 7-footer for birdie that took him to 14-under.
Rodgers negotiated about 60 feet and about three different turns over humps from well above the hole on 17 to within 8 feet for another birdie putt and 15-under. He kept it there with a nice up-and-down from in front of the green on 18 after his only flared drive of the day. His three-day total was 201, four shots better than Oklahoma State’s Jordan Niebrugge and five ahead of former North Texas player Carlos Ortiz, who had a day’s best eight birdies against three bogeys.
"I don’t know who set up the pins today, whether it was Mr. [Warren] Stephens, but somebody was out to get us," Rodgers said. "I thought they were tougher. There weren’t too many easy ones out there. But the greens are so good that if you just play smart and leave yourself underneath the hole, you can make some 10- or 15-footers."
Or, you can make an uphill 20-footer, as Rodgers did on No. 10 to reach 12-under, and he was hardly finished.
"It was a really clean round," said Rodgers, who would head to the practice range immediately after the round. "I hadn’t played that well in a long time … I really controlled the ball well off the tee. I played really smart to leave myself under the hole and on the safe side of almost every hole … I felt really in control … the greens have a lot of slope on them but you can really use them to your advantage if you aim in the right places."
If Rodgers keeps it up, he’ll shatter Warren Stephens’ pre-tourney prediction of 10-under for the medalist on his private course. But he said winning the medalist’s silver plate or securing his spot in the weekend Sweet Sixteen match-play portion isn’t his focus.
"I’m just going to go out and try to shoot another low round … If I go out and play smart and take care of the par-fives and keep doing what I’ve been doing, then I think another low round will be out there and that will be just fine."
For now, 53 golfers are all trying to scramble for one of the spots in the Sweet Sixteen match-play portion that begins Saturday morning, and Thursday was all about positioning. Arkansas Razorback golfers Taylor Moore and Sebastian Cappelen put themselves in good shape to advance.
Moore, the Edmond, Okla., product who recently finished his freshman season at Fayetteville, had a round nearly the equal of Stanford’s Rodgers, a no-bogey, 5-under 67 to place him in a fourth-place tie with Georgia Tech’s Seth Reeves at 9-under for three rounds. Cappelen, the native of Denmark, fired his second 3-under 69 of the tournament to land in a ninth-place tie with seven other golfers at 6-under.
Still, they have one more round of stroke play, as do their UA teammates, Little Rock’s Joe Doramus and Nicolas Echavarria, a native of Colombia. Echavarria stayed within striking distance at 3-under, good for 25th place, with his best round of the week, a 4-under-par 68. Doramus, who battled to make the cut Wednesday, shot 2-over 74 on Thursday and stood 1-over for the tournament in 48th place.
Fordyce’s Lane Hulse, who plays collegiately at South Alabama, birdied the eighth and ninth holes, his last two of his second round, early Thursday to make the 44-golfers-and-ties cut at 1-under-par. Wednesday’s play had been halted after 8 p.m. by darkness with Hulse and 29 other golfers still on the course. But Hulse fell off in his third round, shooting 3-over 75 and was in 50th place at 2-over-par.
Taylor Moore’s 5-under 67 was matched by Carlos Ortiz, who stormed into third place at 10-under for the tournament, one stroke behind Niebrugge.
Niebrugge, a sophomore-to-be at Oklahoma State, continued his steady play this week with a 2-under 70 and a three-day 205 total, 11-under par.
Niebrugge finally missed one of Alotian’s spacious greens Thursday after hitting every green on the course in regulation since he arrived. That’s a first for the Wisconsin native, who won his state amateur last week.
"I’ve been a good ball striker the past couple of years, but if anybody, even people on [the PGA] Tour, hits 53 of 54 greens, I mean, that’s top notch," Niebrugge said. "So, if I keep hitting the ball like I’m doing, the main part of it is getting the ball on the fairway, giving myself good looks. Because if you kind of single-zone-in on these separate greens that are part of the green itself, you can be more accurate with your shots."
Niebrugge rescued a rare wayward drive, a hook on No. 12, with a recovery shot to within birdie range, though he didn’t make the putt — he didn’t birdie anything after reaching 12-under on No. 8. His only slip-up to par came on the par-3 16th, playing at 225 yards, where he three-putted for bogey. Niebrugge said the hole locations were much tougher than they were the first two days.
"I had a lot of good looks at it, like on 18, but just couldn’t get any putts to fall," he said. "But they will. I’ve been hitting good putts. We’ll see if it falls the rest of the week."
Niebrugge said he wasn’t concerned with making up four strokes on the leader.
"I’m going to go like I’ve been playing the past couple of days. I’m going out there to beat the course," he said. "If I keep doing that, obviously I’m going to put myself in a good position."