Ralston sole leader in Western Amateur

Writing from Northfield, Illinois

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Fairways and greens, goes the old saying.

Unless you’re playing in the 116th Western Amateur at Sunset Ridge Country Club. There, even with reasonably thick rough, foul balls are in play. Fairways have become optional.

Exhibit A for that theory is one Spencer Ralston, a Gainesville, Ga., lad who calls reporters “sir” and hit the ball into the stratosphere, usually straight.

Wednesday was different. Sunset Ridge, a leafy outpost that dates to 1923, has 14 fairways, but Ralston managed to hit only one, and still moseyed his way to a 5-under-par 66 for 13-under 129 and the lead in the halfway point of the first stage of this marathon.

“That (hitting fairways) was what I needed to do, but the putter’s been really good,” Ralston said. “I’m confident with it right now. It’s kind of a mental approach. I’m not stressing on myself if I don’t hit a fairway.”

Ralston noted the old-school design of Bill Diddel, where in most every par-4 allows an errant player to punch out from under trees and run a shot onto the green. That saved Ralston time and again, not that someone with eight birdies on his card (including five on his outward nine, Sunset Ridge’s back nine), needs much saving. It was the middle of his round that got him, when he moved to the front nine and bogeyed the first hole followed by a double-bogey on No. 3. But three birdies in succession starting at No. 6 – sinking a curling eight-footer for a birdie there – righted the course.

“I think that was good to end the day on,” Ralston said of the final push.

The Georgia Bulldog had opened with an 8-under 63 on Tuesday, as did Matthew Walker and Lloyd Jefferson Go, both of whom who fell back in the second round.

Ralston, whose back-to-back back nines add up to 61 strokes, is being pursued by a California Golden Bear in the person of Collin Morikawa, who added an 8-under 63, the day’s best round, and sits at 11-under 131, two back and solo second.

“This is such a long week, and it’s all about survival,” Morikawa said of his bogey-free 63. “I’ve got the first two days done.”

Next come the duo of Isaiah Salinda, perhaps the hottest player in the field given the 62 he posted at the Olympia Club last week en route to winning the Pacific Coast Amateur, a premier regional showcase, and John Augenstein of Owensboro, Ky. They’re at 10-under 132.

For everyone advancing to Thursday, the grind really begins: a 36-hole stroke play shootout to determine the Sweet Sixteen for match play.

“Just eat well and make sure I’m hydrated and stuff,” Ralston said. “It’s not as humid here as it is in Georgia, where I play all the time. I don’t mind playing a little more golf here. It’s just a grind all week.”

Patrick Flavin, who is making the Western Am his amateur swan song – there’s money to make next week in the Illinois Open – duplicated his opening 67 to stand at 8-under 134 going into Thursday’s double-round battle. The highlight of his day was an eagle 2 on the par-4 first thanks to sinking a 116-yard approach with a pitching wedge.

“I played really solid all day, made a lot of putts for par, gave myself a lot of birdie looks,” Flavin said. “If I keep doing that, I’ll be around all week. For me, it’s about having fun. Thinking about making the cut is a distraction.”

World No. 1 amateur Braden Thornberry, who put Olive Branch, Miss., on the map, climbed into the final 36 with a 5-under 66. Added to his opening 71, it placed him at 5-under 137. At one point, it appeared he had a stroke to spare to make the cut, but a late spate of good scores after a 66-minute thunderstorm delay moved the cut to exactly 137, encompassing exactly 44 players, and breaking the old 36-hole mark by four strokes.

Those headed down the road include Illinois Amateur winner Jordan Hahn of Spring Grove (68-74–142), Glenview lefty Charlie Nikitas (69-71–140), and Marquette standout Matt Merlick of Winnetka (74-69–143). CBS broadcaster Tony Romo, the erstwhile Eastern Illinois Panther and Dallas Cowboy, stumbled to a 78 and finished at 10-over 152, in a tie for 145th in the field of 156.

At 6,823 yards, this is the shortest course used for the Western Amateur since Wichita Country Club in 1970. Tom Kite was medalist there at 11-under 273, while Lanny Wadkins won the championship. The 36-hole cut at Wichita was 148.

Tim Cronin

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