It’s no surprise the first-round leaders of the Nationwide Tour’s News Sentinel Open are 9 under par after Thursday’s first round. The average winning score in the 21-year history of the event has been 17.1 strokes under par.
There are 107 players in the field of 156 who are below par and 122 at par or better heading into Friday. Seventeen players navigated the 7,110-yard, par-72 Fox Den Country Club without making a bogey. Thursday’s scoring average of 70.442 was the third-lowest first-round average in tournament history.
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Locked at the top of the leaderboard are 24-year-old Sunghoon Kang of South Korea and 31-year-old Californian John Mallinger after rounds of 9-under 63. Louisiana native Brian Bateman, former University of Georgia All-American Kevin Kisner and Knoxville’s own Garrett Willis are one back after posting 8-under 64s. Georgia native Paul Claxton and Australian Nathan Green and are two off the pace with 7-under 65s.
Six players are tied at 6-under 66, including 1999 champion Jeff Gove. Twelve more are at 5-under 67.
“After chipping in for eagle on the first hole and then making a short birdie putt on the third hole, it felt like it was going to be a day without any hiccups,” said Mallinger, who has played 14 PGA Tour events this year and missed the Playoffs for the FedExCup, finishing 186th in the standings. “The putter is hot right now. Once you start holing putts the confidence comes back.”
Mallinger’s round included an eagle, seven birdies and ten pars. His opening 63 matches his career-lowest opening round set in 2008 at the Frys.com Open on the PGA Tour.
“It was one of those rounds where I only had to save par once and it was a five-foot putt,” said Mallinger, who is looking for his first career win on either the PGA Tour or Nationwide Tour. “I’ve got nothing to lose out here. I’m trying to make as many birdies as possible since the scores have been so low recently.”
Kang, who made nine birdies en route to his bogey-free 9-under 63, is making just his third start on the Nationwide Tour this season. His opening 63 betters his previous career-low round by one. In May, he lost in a playoff at the BMW Charity Pro-Am and is currently 60th on the Nationwide Tour money list. He missed the cut in his only other start at the Price Cutter Charity Championship two weeks ago.
“I started really well today,” said Kang, who opened his round with five birdies in a row. “The greens are rolling really true right now. I know if I hit a good putt it’ll go in.”
Earlier this year, Kang played in five PGA Tour events and made three cuts before taking time off in March and April to return to South Korea in order to fulfill a military commitment which is a requirement for male citizens in that country. Kang was originally supposed to serve two years, but his stint was reduced to just one month because he was a member of his country’s gold medal-winning team at the 2006 Asian Games.
“I made some good par putts during the round and those helped keep my momentum,” said Kang, who has played 18 PGA Tour events thus far in 2011. “I’m really happy with my score today but I know I still have three days left.”
Kisner’s 8-under 64 matched his low round of the year, which came at the PGA Tour’s Viking Classic. Kisner earned his 2011 PGA Tour card by finishing 11th on the 2010 Nationwide Tour money list. He’s played 20 events on Tour and is 204th on the money list.
“I haven’t putted well all year and I finally just started making putts,” said Kisner, whose playing partners said he grabbed all the birdies. “I don’t know why they said that,” he added with a laugh. “They shot five and six under. Our group was great today because everybody was making putts.”
Kisner is playing in his third News Sentinel Open. He finished tied for 54th last year and missed the cut in 2009.
“Hopefully I’ll get a win here this week,” said Kisner, who won the Mylan Classic in 2010. “It would be great because I’d get a win and so would the Bulldogs.”
--Two-time PGA Tour winner Boo Weekley made his first start on the Nationwide Tour since the 2006 Nationwide Tour Championship. He opened with a 2-under 70 in the first round to finish tied for 58th after making a double bogey on the par-5 18th hole. Weekley has played in 19 PGA Tour events this year and missed the PGA Tour playoffs by finishing outside the top 125 in the point standings (157th).
--Aaron Watkins opened with a 7-under 29 on the back nine but struggled on the front nine en route to a 5-under 67.
--Two-time winners Mathew Goggin and J.J. Killeen are in the field. Goggin opened with a 1-under 71 (tied for 79th). Killeen fired 5-under 67 (tied for 14th). Both are seeking to become the first three-time winner since Michael Sim in 2009. Nine players have earned the “battlefield promotion” to the PGA Tour.
--Last week’s Midwest Classic winner, James Nitties, opened with a 5-under 67. He’s tied for 14th.
--John Daly, who is playing on a sponsor’s exemption, notched five birdies and three bogeys en route to a 2-under 70. He’s tied for 58th.
--This week is John Mallinger’s third Nationwide Tour event of the year. He missed the cut at the Chitimacha Louisiana Open and finished tied for ninth at the Stadion Classic at UGA.