VILLAGE OF PINEHURST, N.C. – N.C. State star Albin Choi didn’t return to the North and South Amateur this year after making a run to the match play quarterfinals a year ago.
He sent a fellow countryman instead.
Kent State’s Corey Conners, the No. 2-ranked Canadian amateur, shook off a steady afternoon rain to card seven birdies on his way to a 6-under 65 to lead the 113th North and South Amateur by a shot following the first round on Tuesday on Pinehurst Resort’s No. 4 course.
“Albin Choi, as a fellow Canadian, had some success and I had heard great things,” said Conners, who was fourth in the 2012 NCAA Championship, the highest finish ever for a Kent State golfer.
“And obviously, with the history here, it fit in my schedule so I didn’t hesitate to come down.”
Conners made five birdies in a span of seven holes in the middle of his round on the 7,109-yard, par-71 Pinehurst No. 4, where soft conditions following an uncharacteristic string of rainy days allowed the players who drove the ball well to attack pin placements and score birdie opportunities.
“You could be pretty aggressive on the greens,” Conners said. “They are a nice speed to hit aggressive putts and they wouldn’t get away too far.”
Conners leads a trio of players who came in with 5-under 66s, including Wake Forest’s Thomas Birdsey, who struggled through a sluggish warmup and rain before his 8:15 a.m. tee time.
“I was hitting it really bad on the range,” said the Wake Forest rising senior, before chuckling, “as these stories always seem to start out...”
But while Birdsey’s morning may have begun with questions, once he stepped to the first tee of No. 4, his game had all the answers. Birdsey birdied the first hole and eagled the par-5 17th on his way to a bogey-free 5-under 66 to share second with UNC Greensboro transfer Grayson Murray and Cleveland State’s Andrew Bailey.
“Right before I teed off I thought of something, went back to the range and hit one 7 iron well, so I just took that one swing thought to the course,” Birdsey said of his one-swing transformation. “I really only had one bad swing on the course and just made a ton of putts.
“But really, I was hitting it all over the place to start out.”
Birdsey and Murray, the 2009 North and South Junior champion, were among the morning wave of players, 19 of whom finished under par on the soft No. 4, which will host three rounds of stroke play to determine the top 16 seeds for match play. The tournament will then shift to famed Pinehurst No. 2, host of back-to-back U.S. Opens in 2014.￼But players weren’t thinking about No. 2 on Tuesday. It was a day to go low at Pinehurst. A staggering 35 players finished the first round under par.
“You can just fire right at (the pins),” said Murray, whose win in the North and South Junior came 10 years after PGA Tour star Hunter Mahan’s. “ They pretty much stop right where they hit. You can be very aggressive.”
“I felt like anything under 25 feet was a good birdie opportunity,” Bailey said later in the day.
Davidson senior Richard Fountain, who won the Southern Conference championship as a freshman, was among the first group to tee off at 7:30 Tuesday morning. While Fountain finished with a 4-under 67 that included six birdies, he was among a group that was a combined 7-under.
“The greens were just in absolutely perfect shape,” Fountain said. “Anything you put on the right line, it was going in. I could see the line on my ball just rolling end-over-end. They were perfect.”
Georgia Tech’s Seth Reeves matched Fountain’s 67, coming up with the most brilliant stretch of golf seen Tuesday. Through 13 holes, Reeves was 1 over, only to birdie the last five in succession to rocket to fifth at 4 under. Four more players stood three strokes back after 3-under 68s.
Among the other notables in the early rounds, two-time state 4-A champion Ben Griffin, who verbally committed to play golf at North Carolina during his sophomore year in February 2012, carded a 1-under 70. Southern Pines’ Michael McGowan, son of former PGA Tour player Pat McGowan and grandson of golf legend Peggy Kirk Bell, also carded a 70.
Jim Liu, ranked as the No. 3 junior in the world, had a 74 after opening with a double bogey and a bogey on his first two holes.
The North and South is the longest consecutive-running amateur golf championship in the United States, now in its 113th year.
Over the past century, the best in the golf world have vied for its coveted Putter Boy Trophy. The winners now serve as legends in the game - Francis-Ouimet, Billy Joe Patton, Jack Nicklaus, Curtis Strange, Corey Pavin, Davis Love II, among others. It continues to draw the best in amateur golf circles.
"Pinehurst has been a bastion of amateur golf for over a century," said Pinehurst President Don Padgett. "It is amateur golf at its best."
“It’s one of the majors of amateur golf,” Bailey said. “It’s an honor to play here.”