SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – When University of Illinois Coach Mike Small is not guiding his team or on the recruiting trail, he’s still a big game hunter.
The three-time PGA Professional Champion exhibited how at ease he was away from his full-time job Thursday, posting a flawless 7-under-par 65 to grab the first-round lead at Desert Mountain in the 29th Senior PGA Professional Championship presented by Mercedes-Benz.
“I stumbled on to something in the practice rounds with my swing, because I haven’t played much. Our team is in season,” said Small. “My putting was better today. I putted better than I have in a long time. I felt better over the ball, had better lines, my alignment’s better.”
MORE: First round scores from Senior PPC | Photos from Desert Mountain | Full schedule
Beginning play on No. 10 of the Geronimo Course, Small birdied Nos. 12 and 14, the latter by rolling in a 25-foot putt. He then hit a 250-yard hybrid second shot short right of the flagstick at the par-5 15th hole from where he chipped in for eagle. Small closed with birdies at No. 1, 6 and 9.
Small, 51, last visited Arizona in March, finishing T-42 in the Tucson Conquistadores Classic.
“Yeah, I like it here,” he said, adding his strategy on the tighter Geronimo layout. “I hit driver on the par-5s but 3-woods everywhere else. It felt good to play solid golf. As a coach you’re always worrying about your guys. You try to enjoy the week out here and play solid golf.”
Defending champion Steve Schneiter of Sandy, Utah, led a seven-player contingent three strokes back at 68. The group included 2014 Champion Frank Esposito Jr. of Old Bridge, New Jersey; Lee Houtteman of Glen Arbor, Michigan; Mike O’Toole of Noblesville, Indiana; Rea Schuessler of Gulf Shores, Alabama; Jim Schuman of Scottsdale, Arizona; and Ricky Touma of Olney, Maryland. With the exception of Schneiter, each played the Cochise Course, which played 1 1/2 strokes easier than Geronimo.
“I hit it pretty well,” said Schneiter, who eagled his closing hole, the No. 9 hole at Geronimo. He hit a 265-yard 5-hybrid to six feet. “It’s tough figuring out the lines in your drives out here; very tough to judge. Cochise is a little more fair and Geronimo a little tougher and riskier.”
Esposito is seeking to become the sixth multi-time Champion. He converted five birdies against one bogey, but recognizes tomorrow will bring new challenges on the Geronimo Course.
“Overall, I played nice. The first few holes played totally different with the wind and it was a little cool,” said Esposito, a PGA Teaching Professional at Forsgate Country Club. “When it warmed up, the ball started flying a bit and playing faster. [Tomorrow], I’ll have to put a premium on the fairway because it’s tighter. There’s more trouble [on the Geronimo Course].”
Manitou Passage Golf Club’s PGA Head Professional, Houtteman, finds himself in familiar territory. A year ago, he held shares of the 18 and 36-hole leads, but a closing-round 78 eliminated him from contention and he settled into a tie for 18th. While a three-putt on his final hole today left a sour taste in his mouth, Houtteman is in great spirits heading into day two.
“I hit a lot of good irons,” said Houtteman. “I figured out the slopes in the practice rounds and that really helps, understanding what’s up and down, knowing what shots release, knowing where the mountains are. I’ve never seen the courses before so [the practice rounds] were really key for me today.”
Playing in his first senior event after turning 50-years-old just over a month ago, O’Toole scrambled his way around Cochise, finishing with seven birdies, one bogey and one double bogey.
“I had some fantastic saves where I hit into trouble and was able to pitch out and make my putt to save par,” said O’Toole. “I don’t think I can be as aggressive on the par 5s [tomorrow]. [Geronimo] is a shot maker’s course. You have to play to position off the tee to have a shot doing anything into the greens.”
Bruce Smith of Frisco, Texas, made his first career double eagle on Geronimo’s 543-yard, par-5 12th, sinking a 240-yard 3-hybrid on his second shot.
The low 35 scorers earn a berth in the KitchenAid Senior PGA Championship, May 22-27, 2018, at Harbor Shores in Benton Harbor, Michigan.
The Championship is supported by GolfAdvisor.com and John Deere.
The top eight finishers, including ties, will be exempt into the 2018 Senior PGA Professional Championship. The top five finishers earn a berth into the final stage of the 2017 PGA Tour Champions National Qualifying Tournament Final Stage, Nov. 28-Dec. 1.
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