Chris Starkjohann high-fived his caddie, who's also his wife, on the ninth green Sunday. (Photo: The PGA of America)
Scene and Heard: Notes and impressions from the first round
Defending champ Scott Hebert explained to PGA.com's T.J. Auclair how he dealt with the unseasonably cool weather. Plus, Kevin Savage hurts so good, Chris Starkjohann is still riding high from the Senior PGA Championship, and more.
By T.J. Auclair, PGA.com Interactive Producer
SAN ANA PUEBLO, N.M. -- Unseasonably cool temperatures in the low 70s, gusting winds up to 20 mph, clouds that made the picturesque Sandia Mountains disappear and bouts of rain that were heavy at times had Sunday’s first round of the 42nd PGA Professional National Championship at Santa Ana Golf Club feeling more like a dreary, early spring day in the northeast than the typically sun-filled southwest.
Luckily, the rain was never heavy enough to interrupt play, which worked out splendidly for defending champion Scott Hebert, who opened his title defense with a spectacular round of 5-under 66 for the first-round lead.
“It’s kind of eerie, because I shot 5 under in the first round last year,” said Hebert, the Head Professional at Grand Traverse Resort & Spa in Acme, Mich. “I birdied the first hole, which is always good. I hit a lot of good shots and made a few nice saves. I’m happy with how I’m putting. I wanted to get a good one in over here and it looks like that’s pretty good, so I’m off to a good start.”
With a 312-player field, the first two rounds of the National Championship are spread over Santa Ana Golf Club and Twin Warriors Golf Club, before moving exclusively to Twin Warriors for the final two rounds.
Hebert, like many others, felt there was a big advantage to getting Santa Ana out of the way first in order to focus on Twin Warriors for three consecutive days. Of course, no bogeys on the card certainly helped matters as well.
“Because of the weather, I got to punch a few more shots,” he said. “I’m just not used to playing at this elevation, so it was a lot of guessing, a little bit of educated guessing. There really weren’t many holes into the wind, it wasn’t really downwind. It was just trying to figure out the cross. As far as the rain goes, it was kind of nice when it rained because the wind stopped blowing. Then you were able to kind of play straightforward.”
HURT SO GOOD: Excuse Kevin Savage if he had some reservations about how his opening round at Santa Ana would pan out when he went to bed on Saturday evening.
The 43-year-old PGA Assistant Professional from Kanon Valley Golf Club in Oneida, N.Y., suffers from rheumatoid arthritis in his left hand and it was acting up on the eve of the championship.
“I’ve been fighting a flare-up in my left hand,” he admitted. “Last night, it didn’t feel very good. I just keep icing it, put heat on it and some drugs and I just hope it holds for four days. When you get a flare-up, there’s not much you can do. That was my biggest concern last night. I was just sitting in the hotel room, resting and icing it and I’ll do the same thing tonight. It feels pretty good right now.”
Makes sense that it would hurt a little less considering Savage was one shot off the lead after a 4-under 67 on Sunday thanks to birdies on each of his last three holes, Nos. 7, 8 and 9.
Savage credited a lot of his solid play to the local knowledge provided by his caddie.
“With the weather like it was today and the wind, playing in Florida all winter, it felt a lot like Florida out there to me,” he said. “I hit the ball low -- I can hit it high -- -- so when it’s windy it really doesn’t bother me as much.
“I tried to focus on fairways and greens. Our misses weren’t too bad. My caddie is a local from here and he did a great job,” he added. “He was good with the numbers, a couple of reads were really good. I just got hot out there with the birdies on Nos. 7, 8 and 9. That was kind of the highlight.”
The 67 was Savage’s best score in four National Championship starts by four shots.
“We missed one on 18 that we should have made,” Savage said. “It was 6 or 7 feet, but we should have made it. A guy that I played with missed it from shorter. We just kind of got fooled. The mountains were right, it looked like it had to go right, but the putt never moved. That’s about the only read we missed, but you’ve got to take the good with the bad.”
Despite the great start, don’t expect Savage to be looking ahead.
“It’s too early to start thinking about accomplishing the goals for the week,” he said. “You have to play one hole at a time, one shot at a time. There are so many good players out here that if you start thinking ahead, you’re in trouble. I don’t think scores -- I just think fairways and greens.”
RIDING HIGH: A little over a month ago, 52-year-old Chris Starkjohann was the Low Club Professional in the Senior PGA Championship at Canterbury Golf Club in Ohio with a tie for fifth finish.
Clearly, the confidence and the momentum from that performance haven’t faded, as Starkjohann went low at Santa Ana Golf Club on Sunday with a 4-under 67, which included an eagle 2 on the 337-yard, par-4 ninth hole.
“At nine, I chipped it in,” he said. “I hit it about 10 steps off the front and chipped in for two. I really putted good. I could have birdied the last six holes on the back side but I didn’t make any putts. I missed a short one at 13, went to tap it in and it ran by.
“There’s a calmness when you play well and when you have played well,” he added. “I hit solid shots today. I hit one shot that wasn’t solid and it was raining on No. 11. I hit a 7-iron short of the hole. That’s the only one I didn’t hit solid. I can’t complain at all.”
STAYING IN THE MOMENT: If patience is a virtue, the 311 other guys teeing it up this week might be wise to spend some time with 35-year-old Brett Melton, the part-owner and PGA Teaching Professional at Country Oaks Golf Club in Montgomery, Ind.
Melton was cruising along at Santa Ana at 4 under through 13 holes on Sunday and threatening the first-round lead. That’s when he hit some trouble in the form of consecutive double bogeys on holes 5 and 6, his 14th and 15th of the day, to drop back to even par.
“I really had it going out there,” said Melton, whose best finish in the National Championship was a tie for sixth when he made his debut in 2005. “Both courses are really good golf courses and if you miss a shot, they make you pay. I missed a couple of shots, the greens here are pretty slick, I missed a couple of short putts and before you know it it’s a couple of double bogeys.”
With the wind and rain hammering Melton throughout the round -- and some loving advice from his wife Tonya -- he took the double blunders in stride.
“When the weather is bad, it’s easier to accept a double bogey,” Melton said. “You just have to put it behind you, try to get the next shot in the fairway and go from there. That was the mindset today. My wife is really good at keeping me in the moment and not letting me think too far ahead. When I made the second double bogey, she made the comment, ‘Now we’re back to where we started, let’s just forget about it and play the last three holes.’”
That’s precisely what Melton did. He would birdie No. 8 to go along with pars on 7 and 9 for a 1-under 70.
“It was a good finish and it’ll make lunch taste a little better,” Melton said.
A GREAT ESCAPE: Pittsfield, Mass., native Josh Hillman made a memory he won’t soon forget from his first appearance in a National Championship on Sunday.
The PGA Head Professional from Berkshire Hills Country Club was 3 over for the day when he made his way to the 473-yard, par-4 18th tee at Santa Ana, his ninth hole of the day.
The drive was bad. It came to rest in heavy rough, some 20 yards right of his target. From there, Hillman had to chop a 9-iron out. The approach wasn’t much better than the drive, landing in some rocks that surround the lake to the left of the green. He did, however, get a good break. The ball bounced and held up in the rocks instead of drowning in the water.
That’s about the time Hillman polished up on what seemed to be an audition for "America’s Got Talent."
“Every now and then you get thrown a curveball,” Hillman explained. “On that hole the lake has all those rocks edging it. I got a good break since the ball didn’t go in the water, but the ball wedged right up against a rock. So, I just played it like a bank shot, like in pool, banked it off the rock and knocked it to about 8 feet and then made the putt. That’s my par of the year. It was pretty special.”
Hillman made his lone birdie of the day on his final hole, the short, par-4 ninth, to card a 4-over 75.
“Hopefully that’ll kick-start my week,” he said.
ONE AND DONE: It was a short National Championship debut for 32-year-old Jeff Hughes, the PGA Assistant Professional at Twin Rivers Golf Club in Waco, Texas.
Hughes was disqualified for signing an incorrect scorecard at Santa Ana Golf Club.
Hughes had signed for a 7-over 78, which was one stroke lower than what he actually shot. On No. 18, Hughes signed for a bogey 5, but should have taken a double-bogey 6 for an 8-over 79.
Hughes realized his error when he saw a replay of himself on the Golf Channel and then reported the mistake to PGA Rules Officials.