By T.J. Auclair, PGA.com Interactive Producer
HERSHEY, Pa. -- Nerves are a funny thing. Sometimes they bring out the best in people. Other times, well, not so much.
First-time PGA Professional National Championship participants Blake Watts and Marty Jertson took those nerves, bundled them up into positive energy and turned in the type of opening-round scores you’d expect from the most decorated of experienced veterans on Sunday.
Both players began this championship on Hershey Country Club’s West Course. Watts shot a bogey-free, 5-under 67 with all five birdies coming on the back nine, which was his front nine.
Jertson, meanwhile, had three bogeys to go along with seven birdies for a 4-under-par 68.
Watts, who’s just 27 years old, is the PGA Assistant Professional at Audubon Country Club in Louisville, Ky. When he stepped to the 10th tee -- his first hole of the day -- Watts said he was ready to get going.
“I’d say there were some nerves out there at times,” he said. “Well, maybe not nerves, but on the first tee, I was just anxious to get the tournament started. The preparation had been long. It’s been a long week of practice rounds and I was just ready to start.”
Watts was put to the test early. Making a bit of a mess of the par-5 13th hole, Watts was faced with a 60-foot putt for par. Bogey would have been great considering where he was. Instead, Watts jarred the 60-footer for a ho-hum par.
Typically, Watts said, putting isn’t his strength. But on Sunday, he rolled in a bunch of birdie and par-saving putts from 4-5 feet.
“I putted the ball very well,” Watts said. “I couldn’t buy anything on the front nine -- my back nine. But I just rolled it well. I had a good speed and the putter just kept me going. I didn’t make any mistakes off the tee and I hit a lot of solid iron shots. I had a couple of par saves -- 4- 5-footers that were crucial. I just felt really good today. I’ve been working hard on the greens, trying to find the right speed and today I had it down.”
Jertson’s round wasn’t without a magnificent shot, either.
Playing the short, 354-yard 11th hole -- his second of the day -- Jertson hit a wayward tee shot with a 3-wood that got hung up behind a tree to the right of the fairway, blocking his path to the tiny green.
The line to the green didn’t deter Jertson, though.
“It was a tricky second shot, because I had to hook it around the trees and if I hit it too hard long, it was out of bounds just over that green,” explained the 30-year-old Jertson. “So, I hit this nice, little chip, hook gap wedge that ran up pin-high about 30 feet from the hole. It was a good shot to get it 30 feet from the hole on the green there. I made par there, so that shot was memorable.”
Jertson, a PGA Executive Manager at PING Golf in Phoenix, Ariz., made a string of birdies from holes 13-15 and made the turn at 3 under.
Jertson’s second nine was similar to some of the popular rides at nearby Hershey Park -- a rollercoaster. Four birdies cancelled out three bogeys on the inward nine to finish off the 68.
“I had three bogeys on the back nine, otherwise it could have been something pretty special,” Jertson said. “But I can’t complain. Four under is a pretty good start on this course. My goal was to get off to a good start, because you can make some birdies over here and you have to have a little bit of a different mindset on the other course. All in all, I felt good. I was a little nervous, but once I got on the course, and got flowing, and had a good feel for things, I started to stay confident and take what the course gave me.”
Jertson, a player who is longer than most off the tee, was most happy with his performance on the par 5s in Round 1. He played the four par 5s in 4 under, thanks to four birdies.
“I played the par 5s really good and that’s typically the key to my game,” he said. “If I can take advantage of the par 5s, that’s the key for me.”
While Watts and Jertson were pleased with the way they started the PPNC, both players realize that the more daunting East Course awaits.
“The East Course is a completely different style golf course than the West,” Watts said. “I’m looking forward to it. It’s going to be fun. It’s one that I’m more comfortable with. There are a lot of difficult tee shots, so I’m going to have to be solid with the irons and hit them the right distance. I’m looking forward to that.”
A top-20 finish in Hershey would be the ultimate for these two first-time participants, as it would earn them a trip to Atlanta Athletic Club for the PGA Championship in August.
Right now, Jertson doesn’t even want to think about that.
“This is a marathon,” he said. “I know that. Even though I’m a first-timer and I know what all the perks are if you do well come Wednesday afternoon, it’s a marathon -- especially when you get on that East Course. It’ll change your mindset and you know it’s OK to get on a little bit of a par run and take advantage of birdies when you can. It’s a long ways away.”