By Barry Cronin
ROLAND, Ark. (July 30)– The 111th Western Amateur’s first round leaderboard sparkled like the blend of architectural and natural brilliance of The Alotian Club itself, which is staging its unofficial “coming-out party” this week by hosting one of the world’s most prestigious amateur championships.
Three players shot 7-under par 65 Tuesday to tie for the 18-hole lead, while several of their hottest and/or most highly-ranked contemporaries were close on the heels of their soft spikes.
Taking the early lead were Georgia Tech lefty Seth Reeves, recent USC graduate Sam Smith and Stanford senior Cameron Wilson.
Within three strokes, however, were such mega-accomplished players as Justin Thomas, Patrick Rodgers, Michael Weaver and Beau Hossler – all of whom have performed well in PGA TOUR events.
One stroke behind the leaders are two of the nation’s hottest but lesser-known players, Jordan Niebrugge, of Wisconsin, and Texas A&M’s Tyler Dunlap, who both shot 66.
On Monday, Dunlap was medalist –by six shots– at the U.S. Amateur qualifier in Hamilton, N.Y., He traveled to Little Rock on Monday night and shot 66 Tuesday at The Alotian Club, site unseen.
Meanwhile, Niebrugge won last week’s Wisconsin State Amateur a week after defeating No. 2-ranked Michael Kim to win the U.S. Public Links championship. Kim shot even par 72 on Tuesday.
"From the club's perspective Day One couldn't have gone any better,” said Warren Stephens, founder of The Alotian Club. “Both the members and the volunteers are raving about the experience. It was an exciting first day of golf, with exceptional scoring conditions."
The Western Amateur is the first outside tournament to be hosted by The Alotian Club. The championship provides a high-profile platform to showcase the beauty and challenge of the course while highlighting the club's support of caddies and the Western Golf Association's Evans Scholars Foundation, which grants college scholarships to deserving caddies.
The players also were raving about the experience.
“Anytime you can shoot 7-under at this course, I’ll take that,” said Reeves, who, like Smith, played in the morning under cloudy skies that blunted the normally searing Arkansas sun. “Most important, I just need to be relaxed. I just want to make the first cut and take it step-by-step.”
Smith amassed nine birdies to go with two bogeys en route to his 65.
“I’ve been getting progressively better all summer,” said Smith, who intends to compete in the Web.com Tour Qualifying Tournament later this year. “I put together a solid putting day with some good ball-striking and it turned out a lot better than I might have expected. This course really fits my eye from tee to green.”
Rodgers, ranked No. 5 in the world, shot 5-under 67 and was tied with Andrew Yun, his former Stanford teammate who graduated in the spring.
Shooting 4-under 68s were the highly decorated Thomas (No. 3), a member of this year’s Alabama national championship team; No. 14 Weaver, last year’s U.S. Amateur runner-up, who made the cut at the U.S. Open; Hossler, who made the cut at the 2012 U.S. Open as a high school graduate, and Finland’s Toni Hakula, runner-up at this year’s British Amateur and a senior at Texas.
The 15 players tied at 3-under highlighted the international nature of the field, with such names as Brett Drewitt of Australia, Sebastian Cappelen, of Denmark, and Zecheng Dou, of China. Players from at least 15 nations are competing this week.
Among a considerable group of players with Arkansas connections who also competed in the opening round were: Cappelen, Lane Hulse and Austin Cook – all members of the Arkansas golf team – who shot 3-under 69, with teammates Nicolas Echavarria coming in at 2-under and Joe Doramus at 1-over. Wes McNulty was at 3-over; Joe Nichols at 4-over; Stan Payne at 7-over, and 1995 Western Amateur champion Patrick Lee at 8-over.
After Wednesday's second round, the field will be cut to the low 44 and ties. The survivors will play 18 holes on both Thursday and Friday after which the low 16 will compete in match play over the weekend.