Spears holds first-round lead at South Georgia Classic

Stan Badz/PGA TOUR
Ryan Spears is off to a good start in his rookie season on the Web.com Tour.
April 25, 2013

By Joe Chemycz, Web.com Tour staff

VALDOSTA, Ga. – Rookie Ryan Spears fired a bogey-free, 6-under 66 Thursday and moved into the lead after the first round of the Web.com Tour’s South Georgia Classic presented by First State Bank and Trust Co.

Spears was nearly flawless through his first 13 holes, chalking up six birdies and needing only 14 putts to reach the top of the leaderboard. The former Wichita State star finished with five straight two-putt pars and a one-stroke lead.

Tennessee’s Philip Pettitt Jr. was the first player off the first tee in the morning and wound up at 5-under 67, along with Troy Merritt and California rookie Bhavik Patel.

Eight players are deadlocked at 4-under 68, including Ariel Canete, the leading money winner from the PGA TOUR’s LatinoAmerica Tour last fall. Joining him are Dusty Fielding, Tyrone van Aswegen, Woody Austin, Duffy Waldorf, Will MacKenzie, Brazil’s Alex Rocha and Scott Gutschewski.

“This feels really good because coming in I didn’t feel this course suited my game,” said Spears. “It’s a long golf course and I was struggling the first couple of days this week.”

Spears had been rolling along in his initial season on Tour, and had made the cut in his first four starts. His 11th place finish at the Chile Classic and a T28 at the Chitimacha Louisiana Open pushed him to No. 19 on the early money list.

After bypassing the Brasil Classic presented by HSBC, Spears was forced to withdraw from the WNB Golf Classic in Midland, Texas two weeks ago because of strep throat, which landed him in the emergency room back home.

“Health wise I’m back to 100 percent,” said Spears, who entered this week No. 37 on the money list. “Confidence wise it was 50-50. Coming in here and playing a 7,800-yard golf course is not something you look forward to.”

The Kinderlou Forest Golf Club is the longest on Tour but it didn’t seem to bother Spears, who isn’t among the biggest hitters.

“It’s just really demanding but you have to stay within yourself and play your game. I knew I was going to have a lot of 3-irons and 4-irons into these holes, even some hybrids,” he said. “I feel it’s almost an advantage because I’m hitting the longer clubs so often I’m in a rhythm. It’s not like one out of every few holes, it’s every hole.”

Spears did what he does best, find the green and make some putts. The 27-year-old from Wichita leads the Tour in putting and is fourth in birdie average.

Spending almost 10 days on the sidelines didn’t slow Spears down and he turned in one of the best efforts he could remember.

“I’d give that one of the best rounds I’ve played all-time because it’s so demanding from a distance standpoint,” he said. “You have to be laser-like with the long irons. For a guy who doesn’t hit it as far, you have to hit it in certain parts of the fairways and cut off the angles when you can. My goal was to give myself a chance to make par on every hole and I had that opportunity.”

First-Round Notes & Quotes:

-- Thursday weather: Mostly cloudy skies. Wind NW 6-12 mph. Overnight low of 58. Daytime high of 84.

-- This week’s purse is $650,000 with $117,000 going to the champion.

-- Gary Christian withdrew prior to the start of the round and was replaced in the field by Duffy Waldorf, who fired a 4-under 68 (T5).

-- Luke List, the 2012 South Georgia Classic champion, fired a 1-under-par 71 in the opening round of the Zurich Classic of New Orleans, this week’s stop on the PGA TOUR.

-- Philip Pettit was the early leader with his 5-under 67. Pettitt has heard all the talk about Kinderlou Forest GC being a course best suited for the longer hitters, but the former Tennessee Volunteer isn’t buying that theory.

“It should be a bomber’s course but I feel the short and medium hitters can win out here. The bombers aren’t hitting driver-wedge out here,” he said. “You’ve got to hit it in play and hit a lot of greens. There is a lot of risk-reward on these holes. I’m looking at the middle of the greens on almost every hole and taking the 20-footers and just trying to make some of those.”

-- Woody Austin fired a 4-under 68 in the opening round. Austin tied for third last year after starting shooting a 74 on the first day. Austin rebounded with scores of 66-64 in the middle rounds and held a share of the 54-hole lead with eventual winner Luke List.

-- Leading money winner Edward Loar opened with three birdies in his firs seven holes. The Chitimacha Louisiana Open champion finished with a 2-under 70 (T29).

-- Byron Smith, runner-up at the WNB Golf Classic two weeks ago, continued his steady play this year with 3-under 69 (T13).

-- D.J. Brigman tied the tournament record with four birdies in a row. Brigman reeled off four straight starting at No. 4. He finished with a 2-under 70 (T29).

-- WNB Golf Classic winner Alex Aragon opened his day with a birdie at No. 10 but failed to make any more during his day. Aragon finished at 2-over 74.

-- Valdosta State grad Brett Witcher birdied his first two holes and then added another at the final hole and wound up at 2-under 70. Witcher got into the field as a Monday qualifier.

-- Veteran Scott Dunlap fired a 1-over 73 and is T86. “I know what those guys must feel like when they’re in a home-run contest,” said the 49-year old Atlanta area resident and Braves’ fan. “You just swing for the fences every time.”

-- Players who were bogey-free on Thursday:

66  Ryan Spears
68 Will MacKenzie
69 Michael Putnam, Corey Nagy
71 Eric Axley
Course statistics for the week:
  Front (36)
Back (36) Total (72)
Round 1 36.108 36.146 72.255

-- Did you know that Valdosta is called the Azalea City as the plant grows in profusion. The city also hosts an annual Azalea Festival in March.

-- The Web.com Tour will head approximately 240 miles to the north for next week’s event – the Stadion Classic at UGA. The tournament will be held at the University of Georgia golf course. Last year, former UGA All-American Hudson Swafford fired a course-record, 9-under 62 in the final round to earn his first career win. Swafford capped off his day by holing a bunker shot to finish at 17-under 267. He then had to wait 90 minutes for the remaining groups to finish. Luke List, winner of the South Georgia Classic the previous week, shared the lead but bogeyed the final hole to drop into a tie for second place.