Two-time Air Capital Classic champion Brad Elder knew the sponsor exemption he received to play in this week’s 25th edition of the Web.com Tour event was likely once destined for former Kansas State golfer Aaron Watkins.
So after Elder renewed some good vibes with a 6-under-par 64 Thursday at Crestview Country Club, he thanked Watkins in a post-round interview for playing well enough at the Cleveland Open to earn a spot in Wichita.
Elder, the tournament’s career earnings leader, is plenty comfortable around Crestview. But so is Watkins. Hours after Elder finished, the 31-year-old Watkins, who lives in Mesa, Ariz., swiped the first-round lead with a 7-under 63 on Crestview’s North course.
“It’s one of those places that you come to every time and you just think of all the good memories you’ve had,” said Watkins, who posted top-15 Air Capital Classic finishes in 2007, 2008 and 2011. “With all the fans here and being so close to K-State, it’s just a pleasure to be back.”
Watkins, who played on the PGA Tour last season, got into the field by tying for 14th in Cleveland as an alternate. The top 25 at a Web.com event automatically advance to the following tournament.
The 2004 K-State graduate parlayed it into another impressive start at Crestview. He fired a bogey-free round that included four birdies in a five-hole stretch on the back nine.
Watkins posted his 16th round in the 60s in 23 tries on Crestview’s North course, which is playing as a 6,926-yard, par 70 this year. The 63 matched his lowest score in Wichita during the opening round six years ago.
“Being out here for so many years, I come to these events and I know where the pins are,” said Watkins, who finished with 25 putts and one chip-in birdie. “I know where to hit it and I know where to miss it.”
The same could be said for Elder, a 39-year-old Dallas resident who is making his 11th Air Capital Classic appearance. In his first Web.com start of the year, he birdied his final three holes.
“I like the town, I like the course and the people are great,” said Elder, who won when the tournament was played at Willowbend in 1999, then did it again eight years later at Crestview. “When you have success, it’s hard not to come back.”
Watkins, Elder and even Australian Gavin Coles, who matched Elder’s 64 to grab a share of second, know what a good day at Crestview feels like. Coles shot the tournament’s course record with a 61 during the second round in 2006.
The other golfer who was within a stroke of Watkins, Georgia Tech senior Ollie Schniederjans, was dipping his toe into professional golf’s waters for the first time on Thursday.
Schniederjans, who finished second in the NCAA Championships at Hutchinson’s Prairie Dunes last month, matched Elder’s feat with three closing birdies for his 64. It included a chip-in from a difficult position at the par-3 17th, where the world’s No. 1-ranked amateur got his first exposure to revelers who occupy the double-decker grandstands each year.
“It was awesome,” said Schniederjans, who earned a spot in the field by winning the U.S. Collegiate Championship last fall. “That was probably the loudest roar I’ve ever had on a shot, really.”
The tournament’s lone amateur, who will represent the United States in the Palmer Cup next week in Surrey, England, missed a short putt to bogey the par-4 first. But by the end of the front nine, Schniederjans settled in and finished with seven birdies.
“I like Kansas,” said Schniederjans, a Powder Springs, Ga., native. “The wind out here suits me because I hit the ball really low compared to some guys.”
There’s no disputing Watkins’ affinity for his Sunflower State visits. He lowered his stroke average at Crestview to 68.4. The next opportunity comes early Friday, as he tees off in the first group at 7 a.m.
“It’s just a comfort level,” said Watkins, who is making his seventh Air Capital Classic appearance. “I haven’t been out there (on the PGA Tour) long enough to get that.
“You can get kind of aggravated early at some places, but you come back out here and it’s a completely different mindset.”
Defending champion Scott Parel and Cory Whitsett, who made his pro debut after helping Alabama win the NCAA team title in Hutchinson, were among 18 golfers who opened with 67s. Carlos Ortiz, the tour’s money leader and a two-time winner this season, shot 73.