Virginia Amateur: Youth shines in qualifying

BRISTOL, Va. (June 29, 2011) –– The rise of young players at the Virginia State Golf Association’s oldest championship has officially surpassed subplot stage.

As stroke-play qualifying concluded on Wednesday at the 98th VSGA Amateur Championship at The Virginian Golf Club, each of the nine low qualifiers for Thursday’s start of match play are ages 23 or under.

The continued groundswell of youth at the event is being led by 22-year-old Clarksville native Lane Hite, who shot a second day 2-under-par 69 to earn medalist honors with a 8-under 134 aggregate.

Twenty-something and teenagers dominate the match play bracket. Altogether, 26 players in the 32-player match play field are either in their 20s or teenagers. Twenty-four of those golfers haven’t even arrived at the mid-amateur level (ages 25 and over). More than half the match play field – 18 players in all – are playing on their college golf team or just finished college. Five teenagers (three 18-year-olds and two 17-year-olds) advanced to match play.

Collegian Evan Beck, 20, of Virginia Beach, a rising junior at Wake Forest University, delivered the low round of Wednesday’s morning session of 4-under 67 to earn second low qualifying honors (7-under 135).

Northern Virginian Danny Kim (Fairfax), 21, a rising junior at George Mason University, was the third low qualifier at 5-under 137 (second-day 71). Charlottesville resident and fellow 21-year-old Weston Eklund, a redshirt senior at Radford University, swooped in to shoot the low round of the day after lunch, carding 5-under 66 in the afternoon and was the fourth low qualifier, also compiling a two-day five under par total. Teenager Ji Soo Park, 18, of Centreville had 68 on day two and completed the top five seeds (4-under 138).

Record three-time defending champion and 20-year-old Brinson Paolini (Virginia Beach), a rising junior at Duke University who is aiming for a fourth title, shot 68 on day two and was among four competitors to complete two-day stroke-play qualifying with a 4-under 138 aggregate. In addition to Park and Paolini, the others are Virginian Golf Club members Garland Green, 23, of Tazewell a recent graduate of Virginia Tech, and 20-year-old Jay Vandeventer, 20, of Bristol, a rising junior at the University of Tennessee; the two locals both shot 70 on Wednesday.

The veterans include six players over age 30, three of whom are ranked highly in the VSGA player rankings. Martinsville’s Keith Decker, 51, twice a winner of the VSGA Amateur (1988 and 1991) and the top-ranked player in the commonwealth, leads the group as the 10th low qualifier at 2-under-par 140 (68-72). Fredericksburg’s Jon Hurst, 41, second among VSGA points leaders, and 39-year-old Scott Shingler (Haymarket), position sixth in the rankings, also advanced to match play.

Virginia Beach ophthalmologist Roger Newsom, 47, twice a runner-up at the VSGA Amateur and the 2008 SunTrust State Open of Virginia champion, as well as 34-year-olds David Schmidt (Wytheville) and Buck Brittain (Tazewell) are the others in the 30 and over group. Brittain was among nine competitors to finish at 2-over 144. Golfers at 3-over 145 and higher missed making match play.

Hite, who works in the golf shop at Owl’s Creek Golf Course in Virginia Beach, earned medalist honors for the first time. Even par through 14 holes, the recent Radford University graduate birdied two of the last three holes, Nos. 16 and 18, to assure his spot atop the match play bracket. He’s not surprised to see the youth movement in full swing.

“There are so many good young players out there – from high school to college players and amateurs just getting out of college,” Hite said. “We’re seeing it all the way up to the PGA Tour level. There’s just a lot of talent out there.

“It’s nice to have a good number of young players playing well. There’s nothing we love more than competing against each other. But at the same time, the young players are aspiring to do what the Keith Deckers and the other veteran players have done. They’ve won this championship and other events. The sky is the limit for these young kids and it’s great to see.”

Paolini can attest to the recent dominance of the rising crop that has become a theme at the VSGA Amateur in recent years. He won an unprecedented third straight title last year at the age of 19 and became the event’s youngest champion in seven decades when he won his first VSGA Amateur in 2008 as a 17-year-old.

“It’s a new generation of golfers,” Paolini said. “Athletes are now starting to play golf. I’m not surprised – you see it at all levels now – where guys are practicing, training and playing. It’s nice to see youth is good in Virginia as well.”

Beck, the stroke average leader at Wake Forest as a sophomore and the reigning SunTrust State Open of Virginia champion, is looking to add his second straight major title. He’s also looking to reverse his record in the VSGA Amateur; Beck didn’t make match play in 2007 and dropped his opening round match each of the last two years.

On Thursday, he hit 17 of 18 greens on a layout that demands precise shot placement.

“I haven’t really thought about it [his recent record at the VSGA Amateur],” said Beck, who plans to play an active summer schedule of competitive golf. “I always look forward to this [championship] and am just happy to be in the position I’m in for match play.

“I’m trying to get better every day. I’m working at it, but I’m not there yet. I feel fortunate to be in the position that I’m in – to be able to play golf this summer.”

Eklund ignited his round at the par-5 14th hole, drilling a hybrid from 225 yards to 5 feet for an eventual eagle that moved him to four under for the round. He added a birdie two holes later en route to shooting 4-under 32 on the inward half. Making his fourth start in the championship, Eklund knows it will take more than sound ball-striking to succeed in dealing with the uncertainties of match play, especially at The Virginian’s rolling layout.

“With the greens rolling fast, it comes down to chipping and putting,” he said. “In match play, it’s anyone’s game – whoever is putting well is going to have the best chance.”

The first and second rounds of match play are set for Thursday, June 30. The quarterfinals and semifinals are Friday, July 1 before the scheduled 36-hole final on Saturday, July 2.

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