NEWTON – Shortly after Sand Creek Station Golf Course opened in 2006, Jerry Gellerman and his son, Michael, made the first of several journeys from their hometown of Sterling to play the Jeffrey Brauer-designed layout.
“My dad loves this place, and with it being an hour away, we would always come over,” said Gellerman, a 21-year-old senior at Oklahoma. “I’ve played probably 50 rounds out here – more than everyone else, I would say.”
It showed Wednesday during the opening round of match play in the U.S. Public Links Championship.
Gellerman offset a shaky start with a birdie on the third hole, then kept the pressure on opponent Trent Peterson with six birdies over the next 11 holes and defeated the 27-year-old from Eagan, Minn., 5 and 4 on an overcast but pleasant day.
With the 156-player field that started the championship reduced to 32, Gellerman, the lone remaining Kansan, will play New Mexico State senior Patrick Beyhan at 7:30 a.m. Thursday in the second round. Third-round matches are also scheduled on the USGA event’s fourth day.
Reigning champion Jordan Niebrugge, an Oklahoma State junior, continued his quest to repeat with a 4-and-2 victory over Zecheng Dou, a 17-year-old from China. It was a rematch of the 2013 APL quarterfinals, which Niebrugge won 1 up en route to his title at Lorton, Va.
Gellerman, who won a 36-hole APL qualifier last month at Wichita’s Auburn Hills, erased an early deficit and led 2 up after a run of three consecutive birdies that started with a 7-iron tee shot to within six feet at the par-3 third.
“That was huge for me because I hadn’t made very many good swings through the first two holes,” Gellerman said.
Peterson, who played at South Dakota State from 2005-09, won the par-4 eighth with a par to cut his deficit to one hole. But at No. 9, Gellerman took advantage of the USGA’s decision to move the tee up to 308 yards. Gellerman drove the green and earned a conceded birdie, while Peterson failed to get up and down after driving short of a greenside bunker.
“I just couldn’t hit anything to get some shots back,” said Peterson, who made no birdies. “That was kind of the disappointing part. And he was like birdie, birdie, birdie. I can’t stop that. He played great.”
Peterson was his own worst enemy at the par-5 10th, hitting his second shot from the fairway into a water hazard and later conceding the hole. At the par-4 12th, which played just 263 yards, Gellerman hit a hybrid tee shot just short of the green and putted close for a conceded birdie while Peterson three-putted.
When Gellerman rolled in a 22-foot birdie at the par-3 13th, he was 5 up with five to play.
“I love it,” Gellerman said of the match-play format. “It’s just fun to battle someone head to head.
“It’s really intense and so much different than stroke play. I feel like I can let loose a little bit and just go swing it.”
Gellerman advanced along with three of the four stroke-play co-medalists. The lone casualty was UNLV junior Zane Thomas, who received the No. 1 seed by random draw after tying Pacific’s Byron Meth, USC’s Rico Hoey and incoming Texas freshman Doug Ghim at 8-under 134 in qualifying.
Ghim’s close friend, Florida State golfer Josh Lee, won three of the final five holes to edge Thomas 1 up. Lee earned the final match-play spot with a chip-in birdie on the third playoff hole Tuesday evening.
“I ended on a good note yesterday, but it was a whole new round and a clean slate,” Lee said. “You have to be able to keep that momentum going.”
That’s the goal for Gellerman, who finished a disappointing 55th in the NCAA Championships at Hutchinson’s Prairie Dunes – 25 miles from his home – in May.
“It’s been an exciting, big tournament year for me,” Gellerman said. “I didn’t play great at the (NCAA) Championships, but hopefully, I can keep it going here.”