After finishing tied for 10th at last week’s U.S. Open Championship, Casey Wittenberg only had time to take a red-eye flight home to Memphis on Sunday night and make the quick turnaround to south central Kansas on Tuesday morning. He recharged his batteries enough to shoot a bogey-free, 8-under-par 63 at Crestview Country Club on Thursday afternoon and has a two-stroke lead over Nationwide Tour stalwarts Kevin Johnson and Jason Gore after the first round of the Preferred Health Systems Wichita Open.
Wittenberg’s score matched the low first 18 on the 2012 Nationwide Tour and his two-stroke advantage after Round 1 is the biggest in the PHS Wichita Open since 2007.
After carding the low round at The Olympic Club on Saturday, a 3-under 67, Wittenberg was paired with Tiger Woods in the final round. He bested the 14-time major championship winner on Sunday, shooting 70 to Woods’ 73.
“Last week was a great week but last week’s over and this is where my main focus is this year. I need to get the job done on the Nationwide Tour first,” Wittenberg said. “I made my fair share of putts today. I thought the course played fair. If you put the ball in the fairway and hit good iron shots, you had a chance at birdies.”
A runaway winner earlier this year at the Chitimacha Louisiana Open, Wittenberg matched the same score in had in Round 3 at Le Triomphe Country Club en route to a record-setting, eight-stroke triumph. Today, Wittenberg made early birdies at Nos. 12 and 14 and then jumped on the leaderboard after a 15-foot eagle putt at the par-5 18th, his ninth hole of the day. He then added three consecutive birdies on Nos. 3-5 before capping off his round with a 25-foot birdie on No. 9.
“This course is a different beast. You’ve got to go out and make birdies here, especially on a day like this. Last week, if you made three or four birdies at the U.S. Open, you played a pretty good round of golf. It was an adjustment, but I’ve done this long enough to know that if I want to have a good week here, I’ve got to go out and make some birdies,” Wittenberg said.
Johnson and Gore are Wittenberg’s closest pursuers after play ended on Thursday. After missing eight cuts in a row on the Nationwide Tour, Johnson came to a familiar place in search of something good to turn his latest streak of bad golf around. The North Course at Crestview Country Club proved to be just the tonic he was looking for as he opened with a bogey-free 6-under-par 65. A winner on the Nationwide Tour in Wichita in 2006, Johnson made his 12th appearance at the tournament and today’s 6-under round was the same score he posted on Thursday at Crestview six years ago when he won the event.
“I know I can still play good golf but it’s really been a struggle lately. I’ve had good luck here in Wichita so perhaps this was just what I needed to get back on track,” Johnson said after the round. “We all had to adjust quickly because the wind blew hard during the practice round and the pro-am yesterday but we had quite a bit of rain last night and I came out here this morning and it was hardly blowing at all.”
Gore, the Nationwide Tour’s all-time victory leader with seven titles, finished off his round with a 10-foot birdie putt that briefly tied him with Johnson for the lead
“I played a pretty solid round of golf today. The course played completely different without the wind that we had in the practice rounds. I’m just happy to get off to a good start,” Gore said.
Casey Wittenberg’s Round 1 Stats: Fairways Hit-11 of 14; Greens Hit-13 of 18; Putts-24
In two previous appearances in Wichita, Wittenberg missed the cut in both 2008 and 2010.
Casey Wittenberg has only been a leader/co-leader after the first round of a Nationwide Tour event one other time prior to today. He was a co-leader after Thursday at the last year’s Winn-Dixie Greater Jacksonville Open but ended up T41 in the event.
Just one of 11 first-round leaders/co-leaders has gone on to win thus far on the 2012 Nationwide Tour. Andres Gonzales enjoyed a two-stroke lead after the first round of the Soboba Golf Classic and went on to win by two shots. Just three of the previous 22 first-round leaders/co-leaders in tournament history have gone on to win this event and David Duval was the last to do so in 1993.
Justin Bolli holed a 5-iron shot from 214 yards at the par-5 14th hole for just the second double eagle in the history of the PHS Wichita Open. In the final round of the 2005 event, Chad Wilfong made double eagle on No. 14, holing a 2-iron shot from 220 yards. Bolli’s albatross today was also the third on the 2012 Nationwide Tour. Luke List made double eagle during the Pacific Rubiales Columbia Championship and in late May, Tony Finau made a double eagle during the BMW Charity Pro-Am. Bolli also had a double eagle in at the 2004 Albertson’s Boise Open
“It was straight downwind and I was just hoping to get a decent eagle putt. The pin was in a really accessible spot. The ball landed on the left side of the green and the guy up by the green put his hands up in the air. At that point, I thought it might go in and sure enough, it disappeared.”
Zach Potter, a member at Crestview Country Club and former golfer at Wichita State, fired a 3-under 68 today. Potter open qualified for this event on Monday at Sand Creek Station Golf Course in Newton.
There were just eight birdies made at the par-3 12th hole today and it played as the most difficult in Round 1 (3.186). Casey Wittenberg was the only player among the top 14 players on the leaderboard to make a two on that hole, holing a 25-foot birdie putt.
There was a one-hour delay to the start of the opening round of the tournament after 1.5 inches of rain fell overnight at Crestview. It marked the third time this year on the Nationwide Tour that there was a suspension/delay of play and the second time that the start of an opening round was delayed. At the TPC Stonebrae Championship, the start of the tournament was delayed two hours by fog.
Preferred lies were used for a sixth time this year on the Nationwide Tour. Lift, clean and place rules were in effect for the first round of four other events this year – Pacific Rubiales Columbia Championship, Chitimacha Louisiana Open, TPC Stonebrae Championship, BMW Charity Pro-Am.