CARMEL, Calif. (July 11, 2014)-- The new Poppy Hills Golf Course returned just as advertised, firm and fast, and instantly proved to be a test of mettle.
Skyler Finnell, a product of neighbor Stevenson School, jumped to the top of the leaderboard in the annual NCGA Amateur Stroke Play Championship on Friday, carding a steady first round 2-under 69 on the reinvigorated par-71 layout. Cody Riecks and Brandon Wu sit tied for second at 70, just a stroke behind.
The three were the only players to break par despite the course playing at a modest 6,675 yards thanks to a combination tees ranging from the 7,002 Jones Trail to the 5,799 Two Poppies.
Having played at Stevenson, Finnell, who will be a junior at University of San Diego this fall, was more than familiar with the old Poppy Hills. A practice round on Thursday was his first trip around the new track, which re-opened to the public in April.
“I played in the afternoon (Thursday) and it was blowing real hard,” Finnell said. “It’s doable in the morning when it’s not blowing as hard, but in the afternoon it gets tough.”
One of those teeing off as part of the morning wave and starting on the easier more forgiving back-nine, Finnell got going with birdies on the 14th and 18th. The former No.14 ranked California junior for the 2012 class later added another birdie on the tough par-4 1st. He’d slip back to even with bogeys on holes No.2 through No.4, but closed out his round with an eagle on the par-5 9th despite his drive finding one of the fairway bunkers. He’d hit a hybrid that caught the slope to the right side of the green which fed his ball to within 4 feet of the flagstick.
“That slope on the right side is great,” Finnell said. “I hit some shots off that slope yesterday. You have a lot of bailout room.”
Riecks, a freshman-to-be at Fresno State, also went 2-under on the back-nine to open his round, carding back-to-back birdies on the 15th and 16th. The Youth on Course product later bogeyed No.3 and No.4, but bounced back with birdies on No.5 and No.7 sandwiched between another bogey on the 6th.
Starting on the front-nine, Wu bogeyed the 1st and 3rd holes. Coming off a 9th place finish at the recent NCGA Junior Championship, Wu made up for the miscues with a birdie on No.2 and stellar back-to-back birdies on No.4 and No.5. He’d play the back-nine at even par with a bogey on the 14th and a birdie on the 15th.
Three players–JT Harper, Bobby Bucey and Michael Tolladay–are just two off the lead after rounds of 71.Harper, a former star at nearby Pacific Grove High who played for Seton Hall this past season, had four birdies and four bogeys. Tolladay, a former prep star in Fresno who now plays at University of Pacific, was even steadier, penciling in two birdies with two bogeys. A former standout at Chico State, Bucey had a birdie and eagle on No.9 to go with three bogeys.A group of four players, including NCGA Four-Ball champion Danny Paniccia and Robby Salomon of CSU-Monterey Bay, are three back after opening rounds of 72. Paniccia, a former winner of the NCGA Valley Amateur, had the shot of the day, carding a hole-in-one on the 200-yard 15th using a 5-iron. Prior to the ace, Paniccia had gone 3-over through his first five holes.
“I normally hit my 5-iron 185 yards but you can’t fly it to the hole here,” Paniccia said. “I decided to land it short and it bounced in. It hit the pin hard. We could hear it hit from the tee.”
Other than the par-5 4th, the first five holes on the front-nine could have been called the Sasquatch Trail. Holes No.1 through No.3 were beasts, playing as the No.1, through No.3 most difficult holes of the day, respectively. The 416-yard par-4 1st played to a stroke average of 5.119. After getting a breather on No.4 (11th most difficult), players faced the 478-yard par-4 5th, which played as the 4th hardest hole.
Things will get even more interesting come Saturday’s second round. All 18 holes will play from the Jones Trail, stretching the course to its maximum of 7,002 yards.
Saturday’s second round will tee off at 7:30 a.m., with players again going off the 1st and 10th tees. Following play, a cut will be made with the low 40 and ties advancing to Sunday’s final round.