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‘Bright and early’ best describes Frank Bensel Jr.’s opening round of the 2021 PGA Professional Championship presented by Cadillac, Club Car and Rolex.
At 7:30 a.m. (EDT) this morning, Bensel was among one of four groups to simultaneously start golf’s largest all-professional national championship, which features a 312-player field (representative of all 41 PGA Sections and 44 states) and is played on two highly-rated golf courses: PGA Golf Club’s Ryder and Wanamaker Courses.
A PGA Assistant Professional from Century Country Club in Purchase, New York, Bensel began on the Ryder Course’s back 9 and it did not take long for him to realize his round had great potential.
“I hit the ball well right from the start. Good drives in the fairway and solid approaches,” said Bensel. “I had a makeable birdie on No. 10 (first hole of the morning), but missed the putt. Then I rebounded on 11. Another good drive, fairway and approach. I made a 15-foot curler for birdie that had about two feet of break. That got me going.”
Bensel’s 65 on Sunday placed him atop a star-studded leaderboard, two shots clear of four players who opened with 67s: Defending PGA Professional Champion Alex Beach, 2017 PGA Professional Champion Omar Uresti, Ben Polland and Tim Pearce.
While Bensel’s star shined brightest Sunday on Florida’s Treasure Coast, the first round included additional fireworks.
There were three holes-in-one Sunday, courtesy of 2016 PGA Professional Champion Rich Berberian Jr. (Ryder #12, 9-iron, 166 yds); Fred Sutton of Nampa, ID (Wanamaker #6, 7-iron, 180 yds) and Jason Caron of Oyster Bay, N.Y. (Wanamaker #6, 6-iron, 180 yds).
Of the three, Caron used his ace most effectively. The PGA Head Professional from Mill River Club, Inc. in Oyster Bay opened with an even-par 72 on the tougher Wanamaker Course and is tied for 34th place.
Twenty-one players are within four shots of Bensel, including four former PGA Professional Champions.
“There are so many great players here, this is a deep and talented field,” said Bensel. “Whoever wins here this week will have to play great golf.”
Bensel ‘walked that walk’ on the Ryder’s par 5s, notching a birdie on all four. The last two of those bracketed three straight birdies on holes Nos. 4-6. It was his finest stretch in a round he called “stress free.”
“I hit it close all day long,” said Bensel of his iron play. “I had lots of chances, and obviously I couldn’t convert them all, but I did really well with the par 5s. The round was remarkably clean, outside of the bogey on 7 (his 16th hole). I made it easy on myself today.”
Like so many in the field, Bensel has a great familiarity with PGA Golf Club, although he was quick to point out that conditions are not identical in late April compared to November/December (PGA Tournament Series) and January/February (PGA Winter Championships).
“I’ll play the Wanamaker Course tomorrow, but from what I experienced in the practice rounds, it's playing longer than what we often see earlier in the year. Both courses are in great shape, yet the grass is more plush, perhaps because of the temperature and more rain.”
Beach, who won in April 2019 at Belfair in Bluffton, South Carolina, began his title defense with a 67 that included six birdies and two bogeys. A sequence of four consecutive birdies straddling his front and back 9s allowed the PGA Assistant Professional to ultimately reach 5-under-par before bogeys on two par 3s (Nos. 5 and 7) stalled his momentum.
“I hit it well today and could have made a few more putts,” said Beach, who had to wait two years to defend his title. “Moving past the Ryder Course is best for me. I can now focus on the Wanamaker. (Today) was a good start. I am happy with how I played, but I’ve learned we have a long way to go.
“The experience of winning (in 2019) is still unbelievable. It provided some great perks, but also some responsibilities. I want to replicate that feeling again someday, … the sooner the better.”
While Bensel has won four significant PGA of America events at PGA Golf Club -- the 2010, ‘11 and ‘13 PGA Assistants Championship and the 2011 PGA Stroke Play Championship -- he is not alone in having championship roots at PGA Golf Club.
“I won those events on the Wanamaker Course. Lots of guys (in the field this week) know these golf courses and enjoy playing here,” said Bensel. “There are no surprises or unknowns here. I’m very comfortable playing here, on both golf courses.”
Uresti, the PGA Life Member from Austin, Texas, won four times at PGA Golf Club last year alone and it helped him secure his first player of the year citation from the PGA of America, as 2020 Senior PGA Professional Player of the Year.
Although he’s two strokes back, Uresti one-upped Bensel on the Ryder Course’s four par 5s, carding an eagle (No. 13) and three birdies. He is striving to duplicate the PGA Professional Championship he claimed in 2017 at Sunriver (Oregon) Resort.
Pearce, an Assistant PGA Professional at Birmingham (Michigan) Country Club, also eagled the 13th hole of the Ryder Course. His bogey-free 67 also included birdies on Nos. 6 and 7. Pearce is making his debut in the Championship.
Polland has been in this position before, having finished runner up in the 2015 PGA Professional Championship at Philadelphia Cricket Club. His opening 67 included five birdies and just a single blemish: a bogey on the par-4 18th hole (his 9th hole of the morning).
The low round of the day on the Wanamaker Course ー which played 2.8 shots tougher than the Ryder ー came from Kyle Mendoza, a PGA Assistant Professional from Rancho Santa Fe, California, who opened with a 69 and is three shots back. The Wanamaker yielded only 10 sub-par rounds Sunday.
The field will be trimmed to the low 90 scorers and ties after Monday’s round, with the Wanamaker hosting the final two rounds. The low 70 scorers and ties after Tuesday’s third round advance to the final round.
The low 20 scorers earn berths in the 2021 PGA Championship, May 20-23, at Kiawah Island (South Carolina) Golf Resort’s Ocean Course.
The second round of the 2021 PGA Professional Championship will be broadcast live on Golf Channel on Monday, April 26 from 4:00 - 7:00 p.m.