By Barry Cronin
ROLAND, ARK. (Thursday, Aug. 1)– With the preliminaries taken care of, Thursday was time for the cream to rise to the top at The Alotian Club.
Patrick Rodgers proved why he’s one of the world’s elite amateurs, firing a 6-under-par 66 to stake himself to a commanding four-shot lead going into the final round of medal play Friday at the 111th Western Amateur.
The top 16 finishers after Friday’s final 18 holes will begin match play on Saturday morning. The champion will be crowned Sunday afternoon.
Rodgers, who recently tied for 15th at the John Deere Classic on the PGA TOUR, methodically deconstructed Tom Fazio’s jaw-dropping, lake-overlooking, hillside magnificence outside Little Rock, relying on a relatively simple philosophy.
“You just have to play smart,” said Rodgers, a 6-foot 2-inch Indianapolis-area native who’ll be a junior at Stanford this fall. “The greens have a lot of slope on them, but you can really use that to your advantage, if you aim at the right places…The greens are so good that if you just leave yourself underneath the hole, you can make some 10 or 15 footers.”
Rodgers noted the appearance of more severe pin placements in the third round.
“I didn’t know who set up the pins today – whether it was Mr. [Warren] Stephens [founder of the club], but somebody was out to get us,” he said wryly. “There weren’t too many easy ones out there.”
Of course, it’s one thing to aim one’s approach shots at specific targets; it’s another to execute them precisely. Rodgers did both.
“I felt really in control,” Rodgers said. “I played really well at the John Deere, and I had a weird week [last week] at the Porter Cup. But my ball striking has continued to get better since last week, steadily improved.”
Playing with Rodgers in Friday’s final pairing will be the 6-foot 4-inch revelation from the Milwaukee suburbs known as Jordan Niebrugge, who now has hit an astonishing 53 of 54 greens in regulation. The two will step off the first tee at 9:48 a.m.
Niebrugge shot a 2-under par 70, and is at 11-under par for the tournament.
“I’m happy,” said Niebrugge, a sophomore at Oklahoma State. “Hit the ball well again today. Missed one green, the second hole, almost chipped it in. One three-putt today when I got on the wrong side of the hole on 16.
“I’ve had pretty stress-free rounds because I’ve had a lot of tap-ins [putts] from 15-20 feet.”
Two weeks ago, Niebrugge took down the world’s No. 2-ranked amateur, Michael Kim, in match play to win the U.S. Public Links. What will his mindset be on Friday when paired with another star in Rodgers, who’s ranked No. 5 in the world?
“Keep doing what I’m doing,” said Niebrugge, who continued to eschew a caddie and carried his own bag, as he has all week.
“I’m just going to play the golf course,” he said. “My coach always tells me to go out and play the golf course. If you beat the golf course, obviously that’s under par and you’re going to be in good shape.”
In the second-to-last pairing will be two players who scaled the leaderboard by posting 5-under 67s, Carlos Ortiz, who’s at 10-under, and Taylor Moore, at 9-under.
A North Texas graduate, Ortiz of Guadalajuara, Mexico, is playing in his fourth Western Amateur and looking to make his first Sweet 16.
Moore, a sophomore at Arkansas, missed the 36-hole cut last year in his only appearance at the Western.
“Tomorrow, I’m just going to do what I’ve been doing all week: be calm and follow my game plan,” Ortiz said. “It’s really important to put the ball on the right side of the greens.”
First and second-round co-leader Seth Reeves shot even par Thursday and is tied with Moore at 9-under.
Michael Weaver, of Cal, shot 1-under 71 and is tied at 8-under with tournament prodigy David Snyder, 15, who followed up his round of 66 with his second solid 71 of the week.
On Friday, tee times will begin at 8 a.m., with twosomes going off Nos. 1 and 10. The final tee time is at 9:48.
Earlier on Thursday, 30 players completed their second rounds, which had been suspended because of darkness. The cut was made at 1-under par, with 53 players advancing and a few big names, such as No. 2-ranked Michael Kim and No. 4 Bobby Wyatt going home.
The remaining field boasts 11of the world’s top 30 amateurs, according the Scratch Players World Amateur Ranking.
· While 15-year-old Texan David Snyder is the youngest player left in the field, Todd White of Spartanburg, SC is the oldest to survive the cut at age 45. Forty players in the 156-man field were under the age of 20.
· Also making the cut were the champion and runner-up at this year’s British Amateur – Garrick Porteous of England and Finland’s Toni Hakula, a Texas Longhorn, respectively.
· Despite his T-15 finish last month at the John Deere Classic, Patrick Rodgers this week reiterated his intention to return to Stanford for his junior year. He will play on the Walker Cup team next month for the second time in his career.