It is difficult to deduct much from the first day of a six-day golf championship that changes formats during the course of a week.
But one thing became pretty clear during Monday’s opening round of the 70th U.S. Junior Amateur: Auburn coach Nick Clinard has done a good job of recruiting.
Three future Tigers took solid first steps toward securing spots in the match-play portion of the event at Flint Hills National Golf Club. Floridian Brandon Mancheno fired a course-record, 8-under-par 63. Wichita native Wells Padgett impressed the home crowd with a 67 and another Sunshine State golfer, Andrew Kozan, carded a 69 in calm, sweltering conditions.
Kozan’s score matched reigning U.S. Junior champion Min Woo Lee. Lee, an Australian, is trying to become the first back-to-back champion since Tiger Woods won three consecutive titles from 1991-93.
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Mancheno, a 17-year-old from Jacksonville, took the inside track on earning stroke-play medalist honors for the second time in three U.S. Junior appearances. He offset one bogey with an eagle and seven birdies to eclipse Flint Hills’ previous record of 64, set by 2015 Trans-Mississippi champion Collin Morikawa and University of Oklahoma golfer Rylee Reinertson.
Mancheno’s score was two shots better than Southern Cal signee Kaito Onishi and Salt Lake City’s Cole Ponich, a UCLA commit.
“It definitely was out there,” said Mancheno, who earned the No. 1 match-play seed in 2015 at Colleton River Plantation Club in South Carolina. “The greens were pretty soft.
“I was not trying to shoot that. Honestly, I was trying to shoot even par and be happy with that, but I got off to a pretty good start – 3 under through six – and then just kept it going.”
With four birdies in his final eight holes, Mancheno increased his margin for error for Tuesday’s second round, after which the field will be cut from 156 to 64 for single-elimination match play.
That’s a spot Padgett, a recent Maize South graduate, has reached in the last two U.S. Juniors. He positioned himself to make it three by sandwiching six birdies around two bogeys. With high school teammate Cale Bontrager caddying and 15-20 friends and family members following along, Padgett took advantage of little to no breeze and shot 2 under on each nine.
“I played really well,” said Padgett, who will head to Auburn next month. “I didn’t make many mistakes. I feel like I’m hitting the ball really well, so I’m looking forward to the rest of the week.”
When Padgett hit a snag, he quickly recovered. After his first bogey at the par-4 seventh, he rolled in a sweeping 30-footer from the fringe for birdie at the par-3 eighth.
He duplicated the feat on the back nine. After an errant tee shot led to a bogey at the par-4 12th, Padgett hit one of his best approaches of the round at No. 13 to set up a short birdie.
“I just need to avoid dumb shots and big numbers tomorrow, which I think I’ll be able to do,” Padgett said. “I’m playing really well this week, so hopefully, I can just keep it going.”
One of Mancheno’s closest pursuers is Southern Cal signee Kaito Onishi, who carded a 65. Onishi, who attended IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., started his round with a hole-in-one on the par-3 10th. He added an eagle at the par-4 15th, holing out with the pitching wedge he used for the ace.
Onishi’s opening shot was the 13th known hole-in-one in championship history. His ball will be sent to the USGA Museum in Far Hills, N.J.
“I hit it in the middle of the green and caught one of the slopes going back the right way,” Onishi said. “It was kind of hard for me to understand at that point that I hit a hole-in-one, but it was a great start.”
High humidity prevailed throughout the day, and conditions didn’t favor those who started at a particular time. Oklahoma State signee Austin Eckroat led off the afternoon wave with a 5-under 66.
“It was a little windy, but not too much,” said Eckroat, who lives in Edmond, Okla. “The ball wasn’t moving too much. It wasn’t swirling, so you knew where the ball was the entire time.”
Still, Mancheno said a primary piece of strategy prevailed.
“Hitting fairways, for sure,” he said. “If you hit into that rough, you’re not going to make birdie.”
U.S. Junior Amateur
- When: Through Saturday
- Where: Flint Hills National Golf Club, Andover
- Admission: Free