SEASIDE, Calif. – Three-time Champion Mike Small of Champaign, Ill., who makes his living coaching players less than half his age, took his peers to school Sunday by turning in a near flawless 6-under-par 66 to grab the opening-round lead of the 45th PGA Professional National Championship.
Small, the 46-year-old men’s golf coach at the University of Illinois, celebrated his ninth appearance in the showcase event for PGA Professionals by matching his lowest first-round performance, which came in 2004. He needed only 26 putts at Black Horse, one-putting 10 greens, on his way to collecting seven birdies. His only scorecard blemish was a bogey at the 13th hole.
A field of 312 PGA Professionals, representing 42 states and the District of Columbia, began play in the $550,000 Championship at Bayonet Black Horse. The PGA Professional National Championship is presented by Club Car, Mercedes-Benz and OMEGA, and is the second National Championship to visit Northern California, and first since 1970.
Leading the chase behind Small was Paul Scaletta of Jupiter, Fla., who finished a stroke back at 67 after a back-nine flourish. He had four birdies and a bogey, finishing the day with a birdie on the 18th hole at Black Horse. Brian Gaffney of Monmouth Beach, N.J., fresh from a week at the U.S. Open, was among a foursome at 68, that included Matt Dobyns of Lake Success, N.Y.; Jim Estes of Germantown, Md., and Frank Bensel of Greenwich, Conn. Former National Champion Darrell Kestner of Glen Cove, N.Y., making his 21st Championship appearance at age 58, led a group at 69, and was joined by Kelly Mitchum of Southern Pines, N.C.; 2007 PGA Assistant Champion Chris Moody of Provo, Utah; and Alan Morin of Royal Palm Beach, Fla.
“I took advantage of the short holes today, which was huge,” said Small, who guided Illinois to its fourth consecutive Big Ten Conference Championship in May. “I birdied four of the short par- 4s. That was the key for me. When the wedge was in my hand, I birdied those.”
Small began play on the back nine at the 6,850-yard Black Horse, picking up birdies at 12, 14, and 16. He failed to get up and down for par at 13, and made the turn with a birdie at the first hole. He then went on a three-hole birdie string, ignited by hitting a laser-like 3-iron to four feet on the 205-yard, par-3 fifth hole.
As smooth as his performance was at Black Horse, Small said that he knew the 7,010-yard Bayonet Course loomed ahead for him in Monday’s second round. “I need to start feeling comfortable on Bayonet. You have to drive it straighter then you do out here at Black Horse and I didn’t hit it straight today,” said Small. “I need to go work on my driver this afternoon. I think it is more demanding. You can’t fake it around Bayonet, that’s for sure.”
Scaletta, 37, an assistant professional at The Bear’s Club in Jupiter, Fla., posted four back-nine birdies and a bogey in his second-ever appearance in the Championship. The highlight of his round came on the 261-yard sixth hole where he hit a driver to within six feet to post an eagle. He capped his round by making a 15-foot birdie on the 18th green.
“I drew the ball in and thought it would roll off the back,” said Scaletta. “But it hit just in front and that knocked the ball down. It’s nice to be over at Bayonet for the next three days. As long as I hit some solid golf shots, I will do pretty well.”
Bayonet, ranked No. 21 among “America’s 75 Toughest Courses” by Golf Digest, played more than a stroke harder than Black Horse. Bayonet became a rollercoaster tour of duty for Estes, the director of instruction at Olney Golf Park in Olney, Md.
Making his seventh National Championship appearance, the 47-year-old Estes eagled the 518-yard, par-5 10th hole to help him match his best first-round effort of a year ago. He recorded only one par on the back nine, sprinkling in birdies at 11, 14, 15, and 16, along with bogeys at 12, 13, and at 18 when he ran his third shot from in front of the green to the back fringe. He failed to salvage par from there.
“I played calm today. I hit the ball well and putted well, and you have to do that here,” said Estes, the co-founder of the Salute Military Golf Association. “I think experience helps here. I have played in a few tournaments. You are going to make mistakes.
“The wind started rising up in the early afternoon. With any holes playing into the wind, it really makes it tough. You have to hit it straight and hit it long. This golf course is probably the best of all the courses that I have played yet in this Championship.”
Gaffney, the PGA head professional at Rumson (N.J.) Country Club, was one of four PGA club professionals to earn a berth in their first U.S. Open. He began his day on Black Horse on No. 10 making a bogey, then went on to record five birdies. Gaffney also was one who understood the challenge awaiting him Monday at Bayonet Course.
“I thought it would be a relief to come here after Olympic (Club), but I had lunch with Jason Dufner and I told him where I was going,” said Gaffney. “He said, ‘If you think Olympic is tough, that place (Bayonet) is impossible.”
Defending Champion David Hutsell of Baltimore, and Danny Balin of Rockville, Md., the 2011 Metropolitan PGA Player of the Year who has notched two consecutive fourth-place finishes in two previous National Championship trips, each struggled home with a 72.
“You hit it offline just a bit and you pay here,” said Balin, the PGA assistant professional at Burning Tree Country Club in Greenwich, Conn. “I hit it solid all day, but took a lot of putts (33). I hit it to 10 to 20 feet all day and nothing fell.”
Begun in 1968, the PGA Professional National Championship has visited 16 states. It is televised by Golf Channel to a potential audience of 110 million. The field will be trimmed Monday night to the low 70 scorers and ties. The top 20 finishers on Wednesday night earn a berth in the 94th PGA Championship, Aug. 9-12, at The Ocean Course in Kiawah Island, S.C.