Georgia Tech golfer Seth Reeves said he felt in his comfort zone Tuesday, starting with a pairing on the first tee that included his good friend, Blake Biddle of St. Charles, Ill.
"It was a comfortable group," Reeves said, and his 18 holes Tuesday over The Alotian Club proved to be an easy trip, a 7-under-par 65 in the first round of the Western Amateur Championship. Reeves was scalding hot late in the round under an overcast sky and in unseasonably cool July temperatures, birdieing three of his last four holes.
But Reeves’ sole hold on the Alotian competitive course record — this marks the club’s first foray in hosting a national tournament — was shortlived, as Sam Smith of Southern Cal came in five groups later with a 65 to share the first-round lead.
Wisconsin’s Jordan Niebrugge, playing in the threesome behind Reeves, set a torrid pace as well, racing to 6-under-par through 14 holes before settling for 6-under for his round, a 66.
The sun broke through and warmed the afternoon groupings, but few golfers could scare 7-under until late, when Cameron Wilson of Stanford heated up on the back side for four birdies to tie the two morning leaders at 7-under-par 65. Wilson, a Connecticut native who avoided bogey on Tuesday, birdied 10, 12, 15 and 17 on the backside after birdies at 4, 5 and 7 on his front nine.
Texas A&M’s Tyler Dunlap, another afternoon golfer, fired a 6-under 66, duplicating Reeves’ feat of three birdies on his last four holes.
The 155 golfers left in the field will flip-flop pairings Wednesday, with Reeves, Smith and Niebrugge getting to feel the expected afternoon heat and humidity. At the end of Wednesday’s play, only the top 44 finishers and ties will continue with rounds of stroke play on Thursday and Friday. The leading 16 golfers after Friday’s play will make up the Sweet Sixteen match-play format for the weekend.
There is a chance Tuesday’s brilliant rounds may be long forgotten when the last two golfers wrap it up in Sunday afternoon’s championship match. But, for a little while, everyone will marvel at the stellar play by Reeves, Smith and Wilson.
Reeves was at 4-under, facing a slightly uphill 20-foot putt that softly dropped in on the difficult-to-read 15th green. The lefty then drew a 6-iron to within a couple of feet on the 225-yard par-3 16th hole for 6-under. Reeves saved the best for last with a birdie on the demanding 505-yard, par-four 18th, which saw few 3s on Tuesday.
"I’m proud of the way I finished," he said. "If you can birdie 18, that’s a pretty good birdie."
Reeves admitted to having low expectations when the round started, but he was 2-under after 5 holes. His only slip-up came on No. 7 when he failed to get up and down for par from just off the green.
"I’ve had a pretty good summer," Reeves said. "Anytime you can shoot 7-under at this course, I’ll take that. [Seven-under] doesn’t surprise me, I’ve been playing pretty well. I’m confident in myself. I just need to be relaxed."
Smith had nine birdies with just two bogeys, and he was consistently close with his approaches for short looks at birdie.
"If you hit it long, it really benefits that type of player because it’s somewhat wide off the tee," the recent Southern Cal grad said. "If you’re a good putter, you can take advantage of it, so it comes down to the greens. If you leave it in the right spots, you can make a lot of birdies."
Smith, who is playing in his last amateur tournament before turning professional, said he found the greens firmer Tuesday than during a Monday practice round. The course’s Precision Air system underneath the greens kept the moisture at bay during some mid-morning sprinkles. From midafternoon on, the sun was out in full force.
"[The course] right now is definitely playable; you can pick up a lot of shots," said Smith, who added that the course "fits my eye from tee to green."
Wisconsin’s Niebrugge was sitting pretty at 6-under with four holes left in his round but couldn’t go lower after missing just two fairways and hitting every green in regulation.
"You don’t go in thinking you’re going to shoot that low but I just got done playing a tough course at my state am last week [in Wisconsin]," Niebrugge said. "This course is pretty generous off the tee and the greens are pretty big. So, coming into today the main part was just putting. I worked a lot on that last night and this morning."
The play by Arkansas’ golfers was a mixed bag, the good being the play of Fordyce’s Lane Hulse, Jonesboro’s Austin Cook and his Razorback teammate from this past season, Sebastian Cappelen of Denmark. Each finished at 3-under to join a logjam in 13th place. Cook had an up-and-down round with six birdies, including a rare 3 on the par-4 No. 15, but was hindered by bogeys on three of the four par-3 holes.
Razorback golfer Nicolas Echavarria shot a 2-under 70, while another Hog, Little Rock’s Joe Doramus, was at 1-over 73.
Multiple state-amateur title winner Wes McNulty of White Hall could not get his putter going and turned in a 75, while Little Rock’s Joey Nichols recorded a 4-over 76.
Veteran golfers Stan Payne and Patrick Lee struggled. Payne, the reigning club champion at Alotian, double-bogeyed the first hole and finished at 7-over 79. Lee, the 1995 Western Am champion who has settled in Centerton, shot 80.
Other notable rounds Tuesday including 5-under 67s by Cameron Wilson’s Stanford teammates, Patrick Rodgers and Andrew Yun, and a 4-under by Cal’s Michael Weaver, the runner-up in the 2012 U.S. Amateur. Texas’ Toni Hakula, a native of Finland, also carded a 4-under 68. Hakula was runner-up in the British Amateur earlier this summer.
Texas’ Beau Hossler joined his Longhorn teammate at 68, as did Alabama’s Justin Thomas, the top finisher among the handful of national champion Crimson Tide golfers competing here.
Weaver, who lost last year’s U.S. Amateur in heartbreaking fashion at the finish to Steven Fox — who carded a 1-under 71 Tuesday — said he didn’t expect the low scores to be the norm as the tourney progresses.
"I was thinking the scores might be a little higher, but I saw there was a 7-under and a few guys at 5 or 6, so it’s definitely out there," Weaver said. "But I don’t think it will be stay like that all week. Today might have been the day to try to shoot low.
"If you just keep going along shooting 1 or 2 under par, you’ll be all right."
One-under 71 marked the top 44 and ties after one round.
Golfers and Western Golf Association officials continued to rave about The Alotian Club on Tuesday.
"This is a [PGA] Tour event," said Kevin Most, the WGA director, adding that compared to past Western Amateurs, "You would not see anything like this," pointing toward a big tent near the main clubhouse and local caddies wearing bibs.
"Mr. [Warren] Stephens did a tremendous job here. The hospitality has been amazing. Everyone is smiling and asking, ‘What can I do for you?’"
Most said he caddied in the Western Open in 1974-75 for then PGA Tour player Steve Melnyk, who is a member of The Alotian Club. "We’ve been friends ever since. When he told me the tournament was coming to this course, he told me I had to get down and see it. I’ve never been to Little Rock."