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Paolozzi cards 68 to lead Women’s Stroke Play Championship; four tied in Stroke Play Championship

By John Dever & Pat Kravitz
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Karen Paolozzi of Atlanta leads the Women’s Stroke Play Championship by two shots, while four players pace the Stroke Play Championship after Monday’s opening round at PGA Golf Club.

While most in golf associate the ideal of “going low” to mean breaking a personal scoring barrier, Paolozzi has a different frame of reference.

“Going low” for Paolozzi, a PGA First Assistant Professional at Druid Hills Golf Club in Atlanta, entails entering an event with low expectations, because that brings out the best in her game.

Leaderboard: Women's Stroke Play Championship

Leaderboard: Stroke Play Championship

The Women’s Stroke Play Championship, which she leads after posting an opening 68, serves that purpose as her unofficial launching point for the upcoming season.

“I like to take some time off over the winter to rest up,” said Paolozzi. “So, this (Women’s Stroke Play) Championship represents the start of my season. I love to come down here with low expectations.”

Is that a strange mindset for a defending champion, who also claimed the 2014 title?

Paolozzi explained, “In my own mind, I am the underdog and I have to play well to compete. I usually play better that way. I guess you could say I am the opposite of Tiger Woods, but that is what works for me.

“Another reason to lower my own expectations is that we have a very strong field this year. These are some strong names. Lots of skill out here this week.”

Charlotta Sorenstam eagled the par-5 16th hole on the Wanamaker Course this morning and posted a 2-under, 70. She is two shots behind Paolozzi.

At 73, Jennifer Bermingham, Lisa Grimes and Joy Bonhurst are tied for third, five shots back.

Birdies on 16 and 18 gave provided Paolozzi a two-shot buffer over Sorenstam. What’s scary, however, is that Paolozzi’s 68 is three shots better than her opening 71 last year. And she ultimately won by a remarkable 14 shots.

“My putter saved me today, 27 putts is huge,” said Paolozzi, whose five birdies outweighed her lone blemish, a bogey on the par-4 10th hole. “Lots of par-saving putts and a couple for birdie, too. My ball striking was so-so -- a little rusty from the winter break -- and my chipping was pretty good. But today, my putter was the all-star.”

Omar Uresti, Ben Polland, Scott Berliner and Steve Scott each turned in 65s to lead the pack in the Stroke Play Championship.

Beginning his round on the Ryder Course’s back nine, Uresti was 1-under through his first eight holes before flipping the switch and finishing his day with six birdies over the final 10 holes.

“My driver wasn’t as good as it normally is, but they were still staying in place,” said the Austin, Texas resident who has competed in over a combined 550 events on the PGA and Web.com Tours throughout his career. “I was able to keep attacking the holes and got off to a good start on my front nine. I seemed to hit the irons a little bit better on my second nine, but I gave myself good opportunities all day. I was able to make some fifteen footers coming in.”

The 2016 Assistant PGA Professional Champion Polland led the field with nine birdies on Monday, but two bogies on holes 1 and 12 prevented him from owning the outright lead.

“The main thing I struggled with was the driver, but on the Ryder Course you don’t really have to drive it that great,” admitted Polland of Manhasset, New York. “I felt like I could’ve birdied every hole on the back nine with the exception of the green I missed on 12. I made a nice putt on 16, a good up-and-down on 17 and put it to about two feet on 18. It was going my way.”

Berliner and Scott both turned in clean scorecards, each with seven birdies and 11 pars. Berliner, hailing from Saratoga Springs, New York, played the par-5s 4-under, complemented by birdies at the par-4 8th and holes 12 and 16 (both par-3s). Scott, from New City, New York, jumped to a quick start with birdies at 2, 3 and 4. The 39-year-old capped off his round with birdies at the 17th and 18th.

Perhaps the story of the day belongs to Jerry Tucker (Stuart, Florida), who trails the leaders by one stroke after breaking his age with a bogey-free, 6-under 66. The 67-year-old Tucker fired a 5-under 31 on the Ryder’s front nine.

“It was a pleasant surprise. I ‘m probably the oldest guy in the tournament, which seems to be the case lately,” said Tucker. “I just keep playing in this stroke play with the young guys. It’s fun to try and compete with them. I actually three-putted number 4 for a par, so as good as the round was for me, there were a couple misses. But overall I was tickled.”

A win for Tucker this week would mark his second during this year’s PGA Winter Championships, following his dramatic, one-stroke victory at the Quarter Century Championship in early January.

“I’ve won the Quarter Century four times, the Senior Stroke twice, and I was the oldest to win the Match Play at the time in 1999,” said Tucker. “I’ve only been in the top ten in this event a couple times so it would be awesome.”

“This is the kind of stuff we play for. We’re a long way off, but it would be a thrill.”

Also in the hunt at 5-under and rounding out the top ten are Nicholas Beddow of Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, Rob Labritz of Pound Ridge, New York, Ryan Vermeer of Omaha, Nebraska, Brian Cairns of Walled Lake, Michigan, and Jason Caron of Oyster Bay, New York.

The PGA Winter Championships are presented by GolfAdvisor.com and PrimeSport.