The leaders are ready - photo courtesy PA Golf Assoc.
MALVERN, Pa. - The final pairing of the 104th Pennsylvania Amateur Championship at White Manor Country Club will have a familiar feel for the competitors. Rutgers golfer Matt Holuta and Penn State's JD Hughes are tied for the lead at 6-under par 136, while Cole Miller, a PSU teammate of Hughes, is just one shot back. The trio of Big Ten golfers will battle it out amongst the 43 golfers that made the cut and qualified for the final round of the championship, which is presented by LECOM.
Three holes have been very good to Holuta. The rising senior at Rutgers University and member at Indiana Country Club is even par this week at White Manor Country Club on 15 of the 18 holes of the golf course. But on holes six through eight, Holuta has been dominant, at 6-under par on just those holes, using that momentum to vault into a tie for the lead.
"Today the course played a little easier, I thought," said Holuta, who followed up his opening round 69 with a 67 on Tuesday. "I was playing in the morning so the greens were really pure."
Playing in a power pairing with Nathan Smith and Cole Berman, Holuta started his second round with a birdie on No. 10. He was right off of the tee, but hit his approach to 12 feet and made the birdie putt. After missing a nice look on No. 11, he carded another birdie from 35 feet on the 12 hole. No. 13 saw his lone major mistake of the day, as Holuta found the water off of the tee on the 457-yard par 4. But the 2017 Western Pennsylvania Amateur champ rebounded by hitting a 6-iron to just one foot on No. 14 and converted the short birdie. He added another red number on the par-5 17th, coming up just short of the green on his second shot but chipping it inches from the hole for another tap-in birdie.
"I just kept moving forward and playing my game," said Holuta of his mindset after the double bogey.
After dropping a shot with a bogey on No. 1, Holuta rallied again with a birdie on No. 4. His drive went into the bunker, but he blasted a wedge to six feet and sank the birdie putt. He moved on to the three-hole stretch that has separated him from most of the field in the event. After going birdie-eagle-birdie on holes six through eight on Monday, Holuta birdied No. 6 and No. 7 again on Tuesday. On the sixth hole, he was just short of the green in two and got up and down for birdie. He then went to the 334-yard seventh hole, where on Monday he drained a long eagle putt. Tuesday's round saw him drive it to the front edge of the green and convert another birdie to get to 6-under for the championship. Holuta is looking for his second Pennsylvania Golf Association championship, as he won the 2016 R. Jay Sigel Match Play. But he knows there's a long way to go.
"I'm really looking forward to tomorrow," Holuta said. "We'll see what happens, but there's a lot of golf left to play."
Hughes, meanwhile, fought off the elements to card his second consecutive 3-under par score of 68. And that's despite playing his last six shots in a localized rainstorm that saw a downpour for 15 minutes while the last two groups were still on the golf course.
"I managed myself around the golf course pretty well," Hughes said. "I only had a few mistakes out there."
Hughes birdied No. 6 after his second shot on the par-5 went to the front edge and he successfully two-putted for birdie. He followed that with a 10-footer for another birdie at No. 7. Two holes later, he made another birdie after a nice approach left him just a few feet to the hole. His back nine saw a bogey on No. 13 and a birdie on No. 15 before the rains came. Hughes was sizing up a six-foot birdie putt when the downpour started. He missed that putt but was able to convert his par and then another par on the 18th. That got him in the clubhouse at -6 and ready for his pairing with his fellow Big Ten golfers.
"I'm really looking forward to it. It should be a lot of fun. I've played with Matt before and know him a little bit, and I always enjoy playing with Cole," Hughes said. "Cole mentally doesn't let anything phase him. He just gets up there and rips it."
To win the title, though, Holuta and Hughes will have to hold off Miller, the defending champion, of Blue Ridge Country Club. Miller shot the low round of the day, a 66, including a hole out for eagle on the par-4 10th hole. After a bogey on the first hole, he made four birdies on the next eight holes heading on to the back nine. He decided to hit his driver on No. 10 as it was playing a little downwind and thought it would play well with his typical ball flight. The drive flew the trees hugging the right side of the hole and rolled into the bunker about 30 yards away. With a good lie, Miller's bunker shot released straight down and went right into the pin for an eagle.
"I hit a lot of good shots out there and that was obviously one of the best," said Miller, who is attempting to become the first repeat champion of the event since Andrew Mason in 2011-12. "I didn't want to get overly aggressive today and wanted to make sure I gave myself chances, and I was able to do that."
Miller, who plays golf at Penn State, struggled a bit after the eagle. He had to take an unplayable lie and just salvaged par on the 11th hole before back to back bogeys on No. 12 and No. 13. But on the 14th, he went against the aforementioned strategy.
"I know I said didn't want to get too aggressive, but on that one, I went flag hunting," Miller said.
That aggression came in the form of a punched 5-iron to three feet, and after Miller sank that birdie putt, he was back to -4 for the championship. He got his total to 5-under with another birdie at 16, where he made his best putt of the day, a 35-footer from the middle of the green. The round finished with a pair of pars, but Miller was in position to make a run at a repeat.
"As long as I'm prepared out there, I feel good," Miller said. "I don't get nervous anymore, and I'm sure winning last year helped that."
The cut came in at +6, with 43 golfers qualifying for Wednesday's final round of the 54-hole championship.
View results for Pennsylvania Amateur