Tennessee’s Chad Merzbacher leads after lone under-par round
By Alex Podlogar
VILLAGE OF PINEHURST, N.C. – After just a couple of holes, Will Grimmer noticed something.
The hole locations looked familiar.
A year after playing in the 2014 U.S. Open on Pinehurst No. 2 and two years after shooting his way into Pinehurst lore with the only known 59 carded in competitive play, Grimmer returned to No. 2 for his first appearance in the North & South Men’s Amateur on Monday. He shot a 2-over 72, good for a tie for sixth and just three shots back of leader Chad Merzbacher after the first round of the 115th playing of the national event.
“That was fun. The only time I’ve ever played No. 2 was last year during the U.S. Open, and it was kind of weird to see it, well, normal,” said Grimmer, who shot his 59 during the second round of the 2013 North & South Junior on Pinehurst No. 1.
“The only time I’ve ever played No. 2 was last year during the U.S. Open, and it was kind of weird to see it, well, normal.” -Will Grimmer
“But I could still reminisce and remember how it felt last year. I stood on the 17th tee today and looked at that back left pin, and I was able to have flashbacks. As much as I was focused on today’s round, I had to kind of take a step back and smile and think about what happened last year, which was also a lot of fun.”
With his father Kevin on the bag, Grimmer opened the championship with a three-putt bogey on the first hole. But Grimmer, who will play at Ohio State as a freshman next season, settled down to hit the green in regulation on the first eight holes. He chipped in on the 8th and 15th holes, finishing with three birdies offset by five bogeys.
The familiar hole locations, nearly identical to those of the first round of the 2014 U.S. Open, were beneficial.
“Having the same hole locations really helped me,” Grimmer said. “I was like, ‘OK, don’t press, play for the middle of these greens and it’s going to work out.’”
It certainly worked out for Merzbacher. The University of Tennessee rising senior also chipped in twice and had just three bogeys against four birdies despite only hitting six greens in regulation. With No. 2 playing at 7,198 yards with greens speeds running close to 12 on the stimpmeter, the Minneapolis native’s 1-under 69 was the only score under par.
“I didn’t hit the ball particularly well, but I just kind of stayed with it,” said Merzbacher, who recorded seven top-15 finishes in 12 college tournaments this season. “I stayed in control and kind of sat in the passenger seat and just let it go.”
Arizona rising sophomore George Cunningham was a shot back of Merzbacher after the only even par 70 with a trio of players – Wofford’s Andrew Novak and North Carolina teammates Carter Jenkins and Henry Do – two shots back after 1-over 71s.
A group of four players joined Grimmer at 2 over, including Dru Love, the son of World Golf Hall of Famer, Ryder Cup captain and 1984 North & South champion Davis Love III.
Those were the best rounds on a day when No. 2 lived up to its U.S. Open reputation. Only one hole averaged a score under par – the 5th, playing as a 536-yard par 5 – and the scoring average for the first round was 77.083. With 96 players in the field, there were 86 total double bogeys and 16 dreaded “others.” More than 20 players shot 80 or higher, including 2013 North & South runner-up Zach Bauchou, who was tied for 83rd after an 81.
“It’s hard,” Merzbacher said of No. 2, then adding, with extra emphasis, “I mean, it’s hard.
“I saw a bunch of really good players in spots that you’d never think they’d be in. You can’t miss the fairway, and if you do, you better get lucky.”
“It played really tough,” he said. “You have to be in the right spots. Even if you hit what you feel like is a good shot, if it’s not just right, it can end up in a terrible spot. You have to play smart, be honest to yourself off the tee and honest to yourself on the greens to shoot something good here.”
“I saw a bunch of really good players in spots that you’d never think they’d be in. You can’t miss the fairway, and if you do, you better get lucky.” – Chad Merzbacher
Still, many players had reasonable chances at birdies.
“My putter was really hot to start,” said Cunningham. “As long as you get the read and the speed down, the greens are so pure, you’re going to make putts.”
Pinehurst native Josh Martin birdied two of his last three holes to salvage a 74. Ben Griffin, one of the most decorated prep and junior golfers in North Carolina history and coming off a standout freshman season for the Tar Heels, struggled to a 76 that included a triple bogey on the 4th, putting him in a tie for 32nd. West End’s Sherrill Britt, who finished as a runner-up in the USGA’s inaugural U.S. Amateur Four-Ball a couple of months ago, had a 77.
The tournament will continue with the second round of stroke play Tuesday. After a third and final round of medal play Wednesday, the top 16 players will be seeded according to their finish and advance to match play. The championship will be decided on Friday.
The Men’s North & South Amateur Championship is the longest consecutive-running amateur golf championship in the United States. Over the past century, the best in the golf world have vied for its coveted Putter Boy trophy. The winners now serve as legends in the game – Walter Travis, Francis Ouimet, Billy Joe Patton, Jack Nicklaus, Curtis Strange and Davis Love III, among others – and continues to draw the best in amateur golf circles.