By Alex Podlogar
Which kid do you like best?
Go ahead. Answer. C’mon, you know you have one, right?
OK, maybe that’s unfair. Just as perhaps the question Jackson Van Paris received following his first round of the 123rd North & South Amateur was unfair Tuesday.
But Van Paris didn’t really flinch. He did take a moment. There was a noticeable pause. But he was up front. Honest.
And then he gave a well-reasoned answer.
“I’ll have to think about that one a little bit,” Van Paris said, thoughtfully considering a rather impossible premise.
He went on.
“But…well, considering the first 61 led to a win, I think that’s going to take the cake right now.”
That, friends, is how you answer the question about which 61 you shot in the last two weeks was better.
Not that you’ll ever get that question.
But Van Paris did. Two years after making a remarkable run to the championship match of his hometown tournament only to finish as the runner-up, the Vanderbilt junior added another page to his already considerable Pinehurst legend, setting a new course record on Gil Hanse’s Pinehurst No. 4 with a 9-under 61 to lead the 2023 North & South Amateur by two shots.
Jackson Van Paris motions back to his caddie during his first-round 61 in the 123rd North & South Amateur on Tuesday. (Photo by Zach Pessagno)
“It hasn’t really sunk in yet,” he said after a bogey-free round with nine birdies. “When you’re out there and playing a good round of golf, you’re trying not to think about it. You’re trying to take it one shot, one hole at a time. But it’s about as good as it gets. It was a great day.”
Van Paris has had a lot of great days recently. That includes his previous 61, shot just 12 days ago, in the second round of the Sunnehanna Amateur. Van Paris followed that with a 68 and 67 to win the championship by one shot. Last week, Van Paris finished tied for seventh at the Northeast Amateur, where he added a third-round 65.
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And on Tuesday, he opened with birdies on four of the first five holes of No. 4, then closed with birdies on four of the last five holes, including on 18, where he tear-dropped his approach directly over the flag where it stopped 6 feet past the pin.
“I have had a few rounds where I’ve gotten hot recently, and I think it just builds confidence and reassurance that you can go low and shoot good scores,” he said.
“But both 61s were really good. I’m happy with both of them.”
Alex Price tees off on Pinehurst No. 4. (Photo by Zach Pessagno)
Also happy was Alex Price – for a couple of reasons.
First, Price was just happy to even be in Pinehurst. A four-time All-American from Division-III Christopher Newport University, Price was honored recently with the Jack Nicklaus Award as the top D-3 golfer in the country. But it is his first time qualifying for the North & South Amateur.
“I was close to making it last year and didn’t quite make it, but this has been one of the ones the last couple of years I wanted to play,” Price said. “This, and the U.S. Am, are the two tournaments I’ve been looking forward to the most. I was so excited to come down here, and to play well is such a bonus.”
He certainly made it count.
Price made six birdies to shoot 29 on the front nine of No. 4, then added another birdie on the 12th hole to finish at 63 – the same number Jackson Koivun shot to set the previous course record on No. 4 in last year’s North & South.
It was a number that Price said he was happy to see posted beside so many of the top-ranked amateurs in the game.
“Oh yeah,” he said with a chuckle. “It’s nice to know that, even though I play D-3, I’m still just as good as these guys and I can go on a tough course and post a number.”
Tommy Morrison tees off the fourth hole of Pinehurst No. 2. (Photo by John Patota)
Speaking of tough courses…
With two rounds of stroke play before moving on to seeded match play, the field is split between No. 4 and Pinehurst No. 2, the site of the 2024 U.S. Open.
And No. 2 looked ready for next June. Ten of the highest 12 scores on the day came from No. 2, though there were some terrific performances, including by 2022 North & South Runner-Up Tommy Morrison, who carded eight birdies on his way to a 4-under 66.
“Every time I come back to Pinehurst, I feel like I’m coming back home,” said Morrison, who helped the nearby O’Neal School to the state golf championship when he was just a 7th-grader. “It’s nice to have local support and Pinehurst No. 2 is a treat, always. To post a good number out there is just a cherry on top.”
Jonathan Griz tees off on Pinehurst No. 2. (Photo by John Patota)
Jonathan Griz also clearly felt at home – perhaps even a future one – on No. 2. The 2020 North & South Junior Champion added a bogey-free 66 to share the low round of the day on No. 2 with Morrison and Maxwell Ford, who reached the Round of 16 a year ago.
“I’ve always just loved the vibe around Pinehurst. I was telling my caddie, I could see myself living here,” Griz said. “I love coming here, and it almost feels like a home game for me. I live in South Carolina, but I’ve been here since I was 8 or 9 for U.S. Kids Worlds. I’ve been coming here for 10 years now. I don’t even need a GPS when I drive around here.”
SMU’s J. Holland Humphries added a 5-under 65 on No. 4 to be in third place alone. Defending champion Luke Clanton struggled to start, making bogey on three of his first eight holes. He finished with a 2-over 72.
The championship moves on to its second day of stroke play on Wednesday. The top 32 seeds will advance to match play, which begins on Thursday. The championship is scheduled for Saturday afternoon, and spectators are welcome each day.