While Kocher reminisces, Duke’s Smalley takes 2-shot lead at 116th North & South Amateur

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David Kocher, right, is two shots back of Duke’s Alex Smalley after the first round of the 116th North & South Amateur at Pinehurst. (Photo by the USGA)

Pinehurst No. 2 lives up to its reputation in the first round of the 116th North & South Amateur

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BY ALEX PODLOGAR       

VILLAGE OF PINEHURST, N.C. – David Kocher would always check first. He’d peer out of his grandmother’s door, scan to the left, to the right, look back and then back to the front. He’d canvass the fairway, past the green and the next tee, and hunt for movement. Look for the cart. Look for the ranger sign.

Then…GO.

For some kids, trips to a grandparent’s house might invoke anticipation of cookies still warm enough to match the hugs. For Kocher, a trip his grandmother’s house on the 5th hole of Pinehurst No. 5 meant one thing – Golf.

“Oh, never on No. 2,” he said of sneaking out to play. “I wish, but that would’ve been pretty scary.” -David Kocher

“I used to always play the holes around the house,” said Kocher, who shot an even par 70 Monday on Pinehurst No. 2 to share second place behind Duke’s Alex Smalley after the first round of the 116th North & South Amateur. “All the time on 5, I’d be looking for rangers, and they’d always tell me to back up off the course. I’ve been out there in my swimsuit, even.”

Of course, Kocher always knew where to draw the line.

“Oh, never on No. 2,” he said of sneaking out to play. “I wish, but that would’ve been pretty scary.”

No. 2, host of more single golf championships than any site in America, was plenty scary for most of the field. The average score was 76.04, and many of the championship’s pre-tournament favorites struggled mightily. Defending champion Sean Walsh shot 78 while Will Grimmer had a 76. Clark Engle, who was the No. 2 seed after stroke play a year ago, shot 78. And Andrew Buchanan, who teamed with Ben Baxter to win the 2016 U.S. Amateur Four-Ball Championship at Winged Foot last month, had an 81.

“It was tough out there,” said Grimmer, who recorded Pinehurst’s only 59 in the North & South Junior in 2013, a year before Grimmer returned to play No. 2 in the 2014 U.S. Open.

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Duke’s Alex Smalley

No. 2 was so tough that even though he had the lone under par round of the say, Smalley was talking about how good his misses were.

“I had a great caddie, and if I didn’t hit the shot I wanted to, he made sure we left ourselves in a good position for a chip back,” said Smalley, a sophomore at Duke playing in his second North & South. “I had a lot of really good misses and really good chances to get up and down.”

That caddie, Pinehurst’s Brad Yutzy, knows a thing or two about No. 2 playing its toughest. He helped guide Stephanie Meadow to a third-place finish in the 2014 U.S. Women’s Open.

And there were more hits than misses for Smalley, who began his round on the 10th hole. After struggling to find the fairway early, Smalley was 1-over at the turn. But he made three straight birdies and four in a stretch of five holes to rocket to 3 under, finishing with a bogey on 8 – the toughest hole of the day as a 502-yard par-4 – and a par on 9 for the 2-under 68.

Alex.Smalley

Alex Smalley

Smalley said he won’t change his approach for the second round. The North & South will cut to the top 32 players after Tuesday’s second round to determine the match play bracket. The championship will be decided on Friday.

“It went pretty well today, so I don’t know why I’d want to change anything,” Smalley said. “It’ll be the same thing; if we get off the fairways, we’ll have to think about where the miss will be.”

Kocher, who won the 2014 North & South Junior and just finished his sophomore season at Maryland, had one of the day’s cleanest scorecards: two front-9 birdies and two back-9 bogeys. Still, it could’ve been even better for Kocher, who teamed with Doc Redman to reach the quarterfinals of the U.S. Amateur Four-Ball at Winged Foot.

“It could’ve been a lot lower,” he said. “I had it in there close early but couldn’t make them. I missed a 4-footer on 9, a 4-footer on 10 and a 4-footer on 18. I guess I need to go practice my short putting.

“But it was a heck of a way to start. I’ll take a 70.”

Kocher was tied with two other players two shots back of Smalley, N.C. State golfer Stephen Franken and the University of Denver’s Chris Korte, who made the field after finishing second in the tournament’s qualifier on Pinehurst No. 8 on Saturday.

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Stephen Franken

“I avoided big numbers and just took my medicine when I was in trouble,” Franken said. “It’s what you’ve got to do out here. It’s a tough course and it’ll get you.

“But I love it. I love Donald Ross courses. I love how he designs them and how he makes you hit shots and makes you create. You really have to think your way around. You can’t just throw it at the pin. You really have to think about where the pin is and place it in the right spot so you can make par. And you know everybody’s making bogeys, too. Whenever I had a couple of bad holes, I was able to get over them pretty easily. It’s happening to everybody.”

Pinehurst’s Joshua Martin had a solid day with a 1-over 71 to share fifth place with seven others while Redman, who won the N.C. State 4-A Championship on No. 8 last month, had a 72, as did George Cunningham, the 2015 North & South runner-up and medalist. Eric Bae, who lifted local school Pinecrest to the state 4-A team championship with a birdie on the 18th hole of No. 8, had a 73.

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.

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