Co-leader Jonathan Bale (USGA Museum photo by Chris Keane)
It's a mid-amateur from Wales and the AJGA 2022 Player of the Year tied at the top of the leaderboard at the Terra Cotta Invitational. Both players fired 7-under 65 at Naples National Golf Club.
Bale, 35, is a Louisiana Tech graduate now residing in Baton Rouge, where he runs an investment management company. Born and raised in Wales, he grew up just minutes from the famous Royal Porthcawl Golf Club, which has hosted six British Amateurs and the 1995 Walker Cup. His goal as a lifelong amateur -- he told Global Golf Post in 2021 -- is to earn a Mid-Am spot on the Great Britain and Ireland Walker Cup team.
Today Bale posted a clean card with seven birdies and no bogeys. His back nine included a nice run of three-in-a-row on Hole Nos. 13-15. Eric Lee, the 2022 AJGA Player of the Year from Fullerton, Calif. scored his own hat trick twice, on Nos. 5-7 and again on Nos. 14-16. And get this -- Lee's lone bogey came on the par-3 12th after making birdie on Nos. 10 and 11. He could have had three runs of three, something seldom seen on a scorecard.
Lee, who will be staying in state and playing for the Cal Bears next year, is becoming more familiar with the Naples National, where he posted a T15 finish in 2022.
With the next player two shots back at 67 (William Jennings of Greenville, South Carolina), it will be interesting to see if Lee or Bale tries to run away from the field or try to make it a two-horse race.
The 27th playing of the Terra Cotta Invitational gets underway on Friday at Naples (Fla.) National Golf Club. The 54-hole event, considered one of the "majors" of amateur golf, features many of the top junior players from around the world and also a strong group of mid-amateur and senior players.
First played in 1996, the Terra Cotta has grown into one of the most prestigious tournaments on the spring amateur schedule. Past champions include Matt Kuchar, Justin Thomas, Emiliano Grillo, and Bud Cauley while major champions Sergio Garcia, Bryson DeChambeau, Brooks Koepka, Patrick Reed and Scottie Scheffler fell short in their attempts to win the Terra Cotta jug.
The stakes were raised just a bit for this year's event, as the winner will receive an invitation to the Northeast Amateur as well as an exemption into a Challenge Tour event in the UK in August or September later this year.
Once again, this year's field is an eclectic blend of high-level juniors, college players, mid-amateurs and top seniors.
Where else can you get 13 of the 20 junior players in the world, including eight who reside in the top-10, mixing with the current U.S. Walker Cup captain Mike McCoy and former U.S. and British Senior Amateur champion Gene Elliott along with accomplished mid-amateurs such as Joe Alfieri and Mark Costanza?
"The Terra Cotta is one of America's finest amateur championships," said McCoy, who will lead the U.S. contingent to St. Andrews this fall for the Walker Cup Match. "Many of golf's top players have come thru the Terra Cotta and I'm excited to watch this years group of great competitors. The Naples National Golf course will identify the best players and I know the club's hospitality will be enjoyed by all."
Two-time defending champion Caleb Surratt, now a freshman at Tennessee, is not in the field, however, several top juniors hope to follow in Surratt's footsteps by adding the Terra Cotta championship to their growing resumes.
Auburn-commit Jackson Koivun, who won the prestigious Dustin Johnson World Junior in March, is currently ranked first in the AJGA rankings. He'll be joined by top-10 junior players Ethan Gao (No. 3), Byungho Lee (No. 4), Nicholas Gross (No. 5), Bryan Kim (No. 7), Aaron Pounds (No. 8), Carson Kim (No. 9) and Henry Guan (No. 10).
P.J. Maybank III, who is headed to Oklahoma in the fall, enters the Terra Cotta with a hot hand after winning the Azalea Invitational
at The Country Club of Charleston in late March.
The most intriguing player in the field is 16-year-old Mykhailo ‘Misha’ Golod, who escaped his home country of Ukraine a year ago with his mother, Vita. While his mother returned to Ukraine, Misha stayed in the Orlando area where David Leadbetter took him under his wing at his world-renowned academy.
Golod tied for ninth in last year's Terra Cotta before going on to win the Sunshine State Men's Amateur in Howey In The Hills, Fla.
In keeping with tradition, many top high school players from Naples are also in the field, including Brian Bassett, Andy Fogarty, Noah Kent, Marshall Oliver and Carl Santos-Oscampo, to name a few.
Last year, Caleb Surratt became the first repeat winner of the Terra Cotta Invitational
as he shot a 4-under 68 in his final round to finish at 14-under 202, seven shots ahead of Ben James.