In the four previous years of the Nationwide Children’s Hospital Invitational, at least one amateur has finished in the top 10 each time. When Daniel Summerhays won the inaugural event in 2007, he became the first non-professional to win on the Nationwide Tour since it began in 1990. Oklahoma State sophomore Rickie Fowler lost in a playoff here two years ago before turning pro and taking his game and wardrobe to the PGA Tour.
It should come as no surprise, then, to see some of the country’s finest young talent scattered across the leaderboard after the initial round this year.
2011 NATIONWIDE CHILDREN'S HOSPITAL OPEN
The Nationwide Children's Hospital Invitational offers a purse of $800,000, which is the largest on the Nationwide Tour except for the season-ending Nationwide Tour Championship.
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John Peterson, a recent graduate of Louisiana State and the reigning NCAA individual champion, put together a nearly flawless 7-under-par 64 at the Scarlet Course at Ohio State University to take a one-stroke lead after the first round.
Aaron Watkins’ morning round of 6-under 65 held up for much of the day before Peterson’s late run. Harris English, a spring graduate of the University of Georgia and four-year rival of Peterson, carded a 5-under 66 to share third place with veteran Brian Smock.
Nine players are tied for fifth place with 4-under 67s including Columbus native Kyle Reifers, Cincinnati’s Brett Wetterich and Russell Knox of Scotland, winner of last week’s Chiquita Classic, which was played about 85 miles to the south in Maineville, Ohio.
Suffocating conditions and an afternoon breeze didn’t seem to bother Peterson, this year’s Arnold Palmer Award winner and a three-time All-American for the Tigers.
“I love wind. If there’s wind, I want to play that course. Being from Texas I hope this wind blows harder as the week goes on,” said the Fort Worth native, who also didn’t mind a heat index of 108 degrees. “It’s cold for me. I brought sweaters! It was a lot cooler than I thought it would be.”
Peterson was in the second-to-last group of the day and just smothered the 7,455-yard layout with nine birdies, most of which came from close range.
“I hit it really, really well. I controlled it really well. I made some putts I probably shouldn’t have made,” he said. “I three-putted twice but besides that it was good. You give me those two three-putts and a stupid up-and-down on 11 and that’s 61. We had fun.”
Peterson had difficulty containing his smile following the round, the lowest by an amateur in tournament history.
“All I did was hit it in the fairway and hit it on the green,” he said. “These pins were not that hard so I took advantage of it as much as I could.”
Peterson, along with the other eight amateurs this week, has his sights set on trying to make the prestigious U.S. Walker Cup team at the end of the summer.
“That’s my only goal this summer -- to make that team. That’s something you can’t ever do again. To represent your country is the ultimate prize, in any sport,” he said. “We’re not playing for money (this week). We don’t get a single dollar if we were to win. The only thing we’re chasing is a handshake and a trophy. There’s no real payoff for us. It’s just fun to be here and try to beat all these pros.”
Watkins is the closest to him thanks to his eight-birdie effort during a sweltering morning session.
“You’re sweating through your pants, you’re sweating through your shirt and the next thing you know you’ve got the chills,” he said. “That’s just one of the things with being outside and the heat index the way it is.”
English, a lifelong Georgia resident, wasn’t bothered by the hot and humid conditions either and had the best description of the day when he said “It’s almost like sitting in a steam room with all of your clothes on.”
Maybe it wasn’t the heat but the momentum he’s carrying after winning his first major amateur title a week ago -- the Southern Amateur, which was played at the Innisbrook Resort & Golf Club just north of Tampa, Fla..
“It’s keeping it in rhythm, that’s how I like it,” he said. “When you’re playing well you want to play as much as you can. Playing as an amateur I’m not playing for the money out here so I’ve got nothing to lose. I’m going for more shots, going for more pins out there and having a care-free attitude. Just go out and have fun, that’s what it’s all about this week.”
The 38-year old Smock got off to a quick start with five birdies in his first eight holes before settling in for a rough day.
“After about four holes I thought I was going to drop,” he said. “When I get in this stuff I’m overheating. I had this big towel with me and I just soaked on every tee box and walked around with it around my neck.”
--Harris English is a recent graduate of the University of Georgia and winner of last week’s Southern Am, which was played at Innisbrook Resort & Golf Club, home of the PGA Tour’s Transitions Championship. English collected his first major win of the year by coming from three shots off the pace in the final round with a bogey-free 65 to win by three strokes. English played in the Stadion Classic at UGA in early May, shooting scores of 72-71-69-68 to finish tied for 18th on his home course.
--Oklahoma State’s Peter Uihlein, coming off a tie for 48th at last week’s British Open, shot a 2-under 69.
--Jeff Curl withdrew during the first round due to an ankle injury.
--Danny Wax ran off a string of five consecutive birdies, a tournament record. Wax had five in a row on Nos. 12-16. He and Aaron Watkins tied the tournament back-nine record with 5-under-par 30s.