Hanover Graduate Hovers Near Lead on Vermont Open's First Day
Grantham’s Evan Russell sweeps downed pine needles out of his putting path on Lake Morey Country Club’s 10th green during the first round of the Vermont Open yesterday. The tournament’s afternoon golfers, including the Kimball Union Academy-graduate Russell, had to play through a pair of weather delays. (Valley News - Greg Fennell) Purchase photo reprints »
Former Rivendell Academy golfer Billy Ross, left, chats with Jake Orr, of Essex Junction, Vt., on the Lake Morey Country Club putting green during first-round Vermont Open play yesterday. (Valley News - Greg Fennell) Purchase photo reprints »
Fairlee — Benny Hayes is smitten.
Somewhere during the college search process, the recent Hanover High School graduate — a member of the Marauders’ back-to-back NHIAA Division II state champions the past two Octobers — discovered the University of Puget Sound. Hayes applied to the Tacoma, Wash., college with a couple of friends; unrecruited by a college golf program, the Fairlee resident and Lake Morey Country Club amateur will join the school’s NCAA Division III team when he attends the school this fall.
“I fell in love with the Northwest when I went out there,” he admitted.
The view in the Northeast isn’t too shabby, either.
Shooting a personal-best round of 4-under-par 66, Hayes found himself among the leaders and sharing low amateur status after the first round of the Jeff Julian Memorial Vermont Open at Lake Morey yesterday. Buoyed by a string of five consecutive birdies — and six in eight holes — Hayes’ first tourney of the summer stands to be his most memorable should he continue to play well.
“I try not to focus on my scoring and just keep on playing,” Hayes said. “I’ve been playing pretty well, just in all areas. I’ve been striking the ball really well. I felt pretty good going into it.”
Ohio veteran Timothy Ailes, in the last group on the course, carded a 6-under 64 for a one-shot lead on another Vermont Open first-timer, South Carolina’s Zack Byrd. Hayes is in a logjam of six that includes Ryan Kohler, the former Fall Mountain High and Keene State College pitcher whose late 66 tied the Fairlee resident for low amateur.
“Playing the golf course a couple of times has definitely helped, especially here,” said 2010 champion Michael Welch, another of yesterday’s 66s. “It’s just 6,000 yards of sheer terror.”
The leaderboard had plenty of Vermont connections. Not so in the case of Ailes, unless you count GPS settings.
Bopping around pro golf’s minor leagues since turning pro in 1999, the 40-year-old and three buddies decided to make a mercenary trip to Morey this season rather than hit their usual Midwest haunts. The group’s cost-effective approach could really benefit Ailes if he continues as he did yesterday, shaking off a bogey on his second hole of the day to birdie eight of his last 16.
“I got a hot putter on my second nine, which was the front,” Ailes said. “You can score, definitely, if you keep it out of the pine trees and with a hot putter. If you hit the greens in the middle, you’ve got 15 feet max. I just made some putts.”
Playing Vermont also is a “no-brainer,” as Byrd put it, but for different reasons.
A third-team All-American as a senior at Coastal Carolina in 2009, the 27-year-old added Lake Morey to his to-do list because of his wife, Alison, a former teaching pro at the Quechee Club. With friends there and in White River Junction, heading north for a chance at a $7,500 payday made sense.
Admittedly sleepless at the prospect of starting on Lake Morey’s 232-yard par-3 opening hole without a proper warmup, Byrd settled into a routine quickly with four birdies on the front side. He’d finish with six to go with one bogey on the always-tough 14th for his 5-under 65.
“It was a good round; I kept it in front of me and kept out of trouble all day,” Byrd noted. “It’s only the second time I’ve seen the course. You don’t want to overpower a course like this. My game plan was to keep it in play; I stuck to my plan, hit good iron shots and made some pretty easy birdie putts.”
Until the day’s final pairing, he was the only person to beat Hayes.
Playing the front nine to start, a birdie on 9 allowed Hayes to make the turn at 1 under. That was just the appetizer: More birdies followed on 10, 11, 12 and 13, the latter coming only after a short eagle miss.
Neither a double-bogey 6 on No. 14 nor a final birdie on 16 affected Hayes’ thoughts on a day when he beat his home-course best by a stroke. “I hit it pretty solid all day,” he said.
So did many others. The group at 66 includes two former Vermont high school stars (Mount Anthony’s Dustin Cone, Rutland’s Jesse Larson) and an Alabama newcomer (Mack Duke) along with Kohler, a self-taught golfer who continues to improve just five years after picking up clubs for the first time.
“I really scraped it around the golf course for the first half of the day, but I started to score well when I started to find my swing later in the round, which is — of course — when you stop making putts,” joked Kohler, part of an afternoon wave that had to sit through a pair of weather delays. “But overall, it was a solid first day. I’m happy with it.”
Pennsylvania’s Kevin Busteed, runner-up to Rich Berberian Jr. last year, is in a group of four at 67. Defending a championship for the first time, the New Hampshire-native Berberian shot 69.
But none in the field of more than 160 golfers — or very few, at least — enjoyed Hayes’ end-of-day luxury. He required only a short trip down the street to sleep off his best Morey round ever in his own bed, banking on the home-course edge to help this week.
“Honestly, I didn’t feel like I was in a tournament today,” the teenager said. “It just kind of feels like a normal round.”
The numbers said otherwise.
Chip Shots: Afternoon groups were stopped for 40 minutes for a passing thunderstorm shortly before 2 p.m., although no rain fell on the course. A second storm stalled action with heavy rain for another half-hour shortly after 3 p.m. … Byrd owns one of the three best 54-hole scores relative to par (15 under) in Coastal Carolina program history. The other two belong to seven-time PGA Tour winner Dustin Johnson. … Former Rivendell Academy golfer Billy Ross, the son of Lake Morey pro Bill Ross, has entered the professional ranks himself. After two years at North Carolina’s Methodist University, Ross (74) is working as a PGA apprentice at White Mountain Country Club in Ashland, N.H.
Greg Fennell can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3226.