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Hanefeld's hot hand

Kirk Hanefeld of Acton, Mass., put together a workmanlike 2-under 70 Thursday, the low score among the 20 PGA Professionals who completed their first rounds. Another 22 will finish up their first rounds Friday.

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Kirk Hanefeld thrived Thursday despite not playing in a 72-hole event since September. (Montana Pritchard/The PGA of America)

By Bob Denney, The PGA of America

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Kirk Hanefeld of Acton, Mass., one of New England’s leading PGA Professionals for a quarter century, is accustomed to tough playing conditions, and he got his fill of waterlogged Valhalla Golf Club Thursday.

The 55-year-old, making his debut at Valhalla, was one of the fortunate in the 156-member field to get out early after a 3-hour-plus rain delay, and turned in a workmanlike 2-under-par 70. That set the early pace for the 20 of 42 PGA Professionals who were able to beat the darkness and complete their opening round of the 72nd Senior PGA Championship presented by KitchenAid. Overall, 78 players completed play.

“I had it going early and was 4 under par through 10, before I made just a couple of mistakes coming in," said Hanefeld, the 2008 Senior PGA Professional National Champion, who is making his sixth Championship appearance. “So I was really pleased. I had some opportunities along the way. I made an ugly bogey on No. 6. I just didn't hit a good tee shot with a 5 iron in and didn't get it up and down from the bunker.

“Then, I missed a putt from a foot and a half on No. 8. Just out of the blue, I just got up to hit it and it just kind of squirted to the right and all of a sudden, I made bogey there,” he explained. “So four birdies, two bogeys, I really played solid. I would have felt pretty good if I shot 3 under as opposed to 2 under. But, I'll take it.”

Hanefeld, who hadn’t played in a 72-hole event since September, addressed the marathon-like day that gripped the field once the rain hit the Louisville area.

“That’s always hard to try to kind of keep your mindset kind of the whole day,” he said. “It's been a long day, we were here since about 8 o'clock this morning or whatever. That's hard, along with the golf course being very, very difficult and very difficult to walk. That's probably even harder to walk than it is to play, if that makes any sense. It’s just physically demanding. And it's going to be along four days trudging through the mud.

Hanefeld took 29 putts and hit 13 of 14 fairways, which was the prescription for surviving the pitfalls that lie throughout the Jack Nicklaus-designed layout, and which played all of its 6,963 yards.

“For me, this is the meat of the season,” said Hanefeld. “I want to do well, and know that it will be tough, but it will be tough for everyone out here.”

While Hanefeld was able to hold his round together, it was a disappointing back nine for reigning Senior PGA Professional Player of the Year Sonny Skinner of Sylvester, Ga., who posted a 72 in his Championship debut. Going out with a sizzling 4-under-par 32, Skinner struggled home in 40, which featured a bogey on the par-5 10th after blading a wedge approach, then adding bogeys at 14, 15 and 17, the latter a three-putt effort.

“I was coming in here really liking what I saw, and I believe that The PGA of America did a great job with this course over the years,” said Skinner, 50, recently named the PGA head professional at River Pointe Golf Club in Albany, Ga. “I felt that Louisville has to be a great place for me to visit. After all, they hired a Georgia boy in the golf shop (Valhalla PGA head professional Keith Reese, formerly of Augusta) and they got a kid from my town (Wiley Brown of Sylvester), who helped them win an NCAA basketball championship (1980).

“I had it going with a great front nine, holing a shot from 38 yards at No. 2, which really got me started. I just could not keep it together on the back nine. That back nine is a lot harder for all of us.”