VALDOSTA, Ga. – Rookie Ryan Spears fired a bogey-free, 6-under 66 Thursday to hold the lead after the first round of the South Georgia Classic on the Web.com Tour.
Spears was nearly flawless through his first 13 holes, chalking up six birdies and needing only 14 putts to reach the top of the leaderboard. The former Wichita State star finished with five straight two-putt pars and a one-stroke lead.
Tennessee’s Philip Pettitt Jr. was the first player off the first tee in the morning and wound up at 5-under 67, along with Troy Merritt and California rookie Bhavik Patel.
Eight players are deadlocked at 4-under 68, including Ariel Canete, the leading money winner from the PGA Tour Latinoamerica last fall. Joining him are Dusty Fielding, Tyrone van Aswegen, Woody Austin, Duffy Waldorf, Will MacKenzie, Brazil’s Alex Rocha and Scott Gutschewski.
“This feels really good because coming in I didn’t feel this course suited my game,” said Spears. “It’s a long golf course and I was struggling the first couple of days this week.”
Spears had been rolling along in his initial season on the Web.com Tour, and had made the cut in his first four starts. His 11th-place finish at the Chile Classic and a tie for 28th at the Chitimacha Louisiana Open pushed him to No. 19 on the early money list.
After bypassing the Brasil Classic, Spears was forced to withdraw from the WNB Golf Classic in Midland, Tex., two weeks ago because of strep throat, which landed him in the emergency room back home.
“Healthwise, I’m back to 100 percent,” said Spears, who entered this week No. 37 on the money list. “Confidence wise it was 50-50. Coming in here and playing a 7,800-yard golf course is not something you look forward to.”
The Kinderlou Forest Golf Club is the longest on tour but it didn’t seem to bother Spears, who isn’t among the biggest hitters.
“It’s just really demanding, but you have to stay within yourself and play your game. I knew I was going to have a lot of 3-irons and 4-irons into these holes, even some hybrids,” he said. “I feel it’s almost an advantage because I’m hitting the longer clubs so often I’m in a rhythm. It’s not like one out of every few holes, it’s every hole.”
Spears did what he does best, find the green and make some putts. The 27-year-old from Wichita leads the tour in putting and is fourth in birdie average.
Spending almost 10 days on the sidelines didn’t slow Spears down and he turned in one of the best efforts he could remember.
“I’d give that one of the best rounds I’ve played all-time because it’s so demanding from a distance standpoint,” he said. “You have to be laser-like with the long irons. For a guy who doesn’t hit it as far, you have to hit it in certain parts of the fairways and cut off the angles when you can. My goal was to give myself a chance to make par on every hole and I had that opportunity.”
Pettitt was the early leader with his 67. He’s heard all the talk about Kinderlou Forest GC being a course best suited for the longer hitters, but the former Tennessee Volunteer isn’t buying that theory.
“It should be a bomber’s course, but I feel the short and medium hitters can win out here. The bombers aren’t hitting driver-wedge out here,” he said. “You’ve got to hit it in play and hit a lot of greens. There is a lot of risk-reward on these holes. I’m looking at the middle of the greens on almost every hole and taking the 20-footers and just trying to make some of those.”
--Gary Christian withdrew prior to the start of the round and was replaced by Duffy Waldorf, who fired a 4-under 68 and is tied for fifth.
--Woody Austin fired a 68. Austin tied for third last year after starting shooting a 74 on the first day. He rebounded with scores of 66-64 in the middle rounds and held a share of the 54-hole lead with eventual winner Luke List.
--Leading money winner Edward Loar opened with three birdies in his first seven holes, and finished with a 2-under 70 (tied for 29th).
--Byron Smith, runner-up at the WNB Golf Classic two weeks ago, continued his steady play with 3-under 69 (tied for 13th).
--D.J. Brigman tied the tournament record with four birdies in a row. Brigman reeled off four straight starting at No. 4. He finished with a 70.
--WNB Golf Classic winner Alex Aragon opened his day with a birdie at No. 10 but failed to make any more and finished at 2-over 74.
--Valdosta State grad Brett Witcher birdied his first two holes and then added another at the final hole and wound up at 2-under 70. Witcher got into the field as a Monday qualifier.
--Veteran Scott Dunlap fired a 73 and is tied for 86th. “I know what those guys must feel like when they’re in a home-run contest,” said the 49-year-old Atlanta-area resident. “You just swing for the fences every time.”