By Bob Denney, The PGA of America
HERSHEY, Pa. -- Lonny Alexander of New Braunfels, Texas, set a torrid pace Sunday morning on Hershey Country Club’s West Course, while Scott Erdmann of Tigard, Ore., and Jeff Sorenson of Blaine, Minn., tamed the challenging greens of the East Course in the afternoon, forging a share of the opening-round lead in the 44th PGA Professional National Championship.
Alexander, the PGA Director of Instruction at Onion Creek Club in Austin, Texas, posted a 6-under-par 66 on the par-72 West Course, which played more than 1½ strokes easier than the adjoining par-71 East Course. Erdmann, a PGA Assistant Professional at Oswego Lake Country Club in Lake Oswego, Ore., and Sorenson, a PGA Teaching Professional at Columbia Country Club in Minneapolis, each flirted with the course record before closing at 6-under-par 65.
Overall, 66 players in the 312-player field finished under par under ideal scoring conditions, as The PGA of America’s showcase event for PGA Professionals made its first appearance in Pennsylvania.
Defending Champion Mike Small of Champaign, Ill., the head men’s golf coach at the University of Illinois, led a trio at 67 that included Blake Watts of New Albany, Ind., and Jeff Martin of Warwick, R.I.
Among those two strokes back included 1996 Champion Darrell Kestner of Glen Cove, N.Y., Marty Jertson of Phoenix, Ariz., Jim Estes of Germantown, Md., and Bill Israelson of Staples, Minn.
Alexander is on a mission to erase five previous disappointing appearances in which he missed earning a top-20 finish that would have guaranteed a berth in the PGA Championship.
“I made a bunch of 10- to 20-footers, really giving myself great chances to make birdies,” said Alexander. “Making birdies on the last five holes wasn't too shabby. There were also a couple of saves, which were key today.
“I have played in five Championships and never made the top 20. I finished one shot out of the top 20 in 2008, and I really want to get to a PGA Championship,” he explained. “That is my first goal this week. Getting to this Championship is hard enough, and with all the great players, you have to play so well all week. This is just the start. It's a great field with a small cut.”
The National Championship field represents 44 states and 41 PGA Sections and is presented by Club Car and Mercedes-Benz.
The field will be trimmed to the low 70 scorers and ties Monday night, and the low 20 scorers after Wednesday’s 18-hole finale will earn a berth in the 93rd PGA Championship, Aug. 11-14, at Atlanta Athletic Club in Johns Creek, Ga.
Sorenson and Erdmann, playing one group apart, each began play on the back nine and matched birdies on the 420-yard, par-4 ninth hole to close out their rounds.
Sorenson capped a six-birdie, bogey-free round by making a downhill 18-foot putt and Erdmann rallied after two consecutive bogeys on his 16th and 17th holes of the day, by hitting a sand wedge approach to eight feet and holing the putt.
“This course really fits my game well, especially visually,” said Sorenson, who tied for 21st last year. “The thing that I like the most is that you have to control your iron distance because there are some runoffs and some tricky pin positions.
Erdmann led the field with eight birdies, and was the closest anyone could come to matching the course record of 64. That bid ended, however, when he bogeyed the seventh after failing to get up and down for par from a greenside bunker. He missed the green at the 203-yard, par-3 eighth, and could not salvage par.
“My driver is the straightest club in my bag, and I ripped it down the middle, and left myself with a sand wedge,” said Erdmann of his closing birdie. “That hole was a huge boost to my confidence after the struggle I had on the previous two holes.”
Small, bidding for an unprecedented fourth national title, collected six birdies on the West Course. He had one glitch when he missed bogeyed the par-3 fifth.
“I got some stuff out of the round today, but I didn’t hit it great,” said Small. “My misses weren’t as bad as I thought they would be. Now this is over, I feel good that I can concentrate on the other (East). I hit a lot more greens that I am used to. My only bogey was a three-putt from the fringe. I missed a two-footer for par. I was just zoned out.”
The first two rounds of the National Championship are conducted on the par-72, 6,636-yard West Course designed by Maurice McCarthy in 1930, and the par-71, 7,022-yard East Course, which was crafted by George Fazio and opened for play in 1969. The final two rounds will be conducted on the East Course, the site of the 1940 PGA Championship won by Byron Nelson.
The PGA Professional National Championship is supported by Titleist/FootJoy, Callaway Golf, Nike Golf, TaylorMade-adidas Golf/Ashworth and the PGA Tour.