BY JEFF FALK
QUENTIN – Mat Rowe is exactly where he wants to be. Or is he?
One must be careful for what he wishes for.
On Saturday morning at the 6,011-yard, par-71 Fairview Golf Course, during the opening round of the 59th annual Lebanon County Amateur Championship, Rowe, an unknown quantity on the local golf scene, enjoyed the competitive day of his young life. The 23-year-old Elco High School and Penn State graduate fired a career-best and four-under par 67 to forge a surprising two-shot lead heading into Sunday’s final round, back at Fairview.
But given the seasoned and star-studded field breathing down his neck, Rowe’s advantage seems to be a precarious one. Lurking after first-round 69s are the talented Dan Brown and the always dangerous Cody Kersey.
Darren Lutz and Doug Swanson carded one-under 70s and are three strokes back, while two-time defending champion Jimmy Gardner and perennial bridesmaid Chris Gebhard each posted even-round scores of 71. Meanwhile, Brian Auman notched an opening-round 72, and John DiGiacomo and Steve Allwein both registered 73s.
“There’s always a good quality of guys playing,” said Rowe, who’s competing in his fourth straight county amateur. “If you can play well on Saturday, then it’s a huge advantage to play with a group of guys who are better than you on Sunday. When I’m competing I focus a little more, I stick to my own game.
“I just want to do the best I can,” continued Rowe. “I know I’m going to be nervous. I never had the lead in any tournament. I just want to hit fairways and greens and two-putt. I’ll take even-par tomorrow.”
“It’s a real good round for a younger guy. It’s real nice to see a younger guy play well,” said Brown, a two-time champion. “I look at it like this: I enjoy seeing a young guy play well. When you play well it’s different. That’s what seasons you, getting in the hunt. The more experience you get under pressure, the better you can play.”
“He (Rowe) works at Pine Meadows. He’s a good kid, but I’ve never really seen him play,” said Kersey, one of the biggest hitters locally. “More power to him. He’s just got to keep that (the quality of the players chasing him) out of his head and play. He’s just got to block out everybody else and play his game.”
Rowe’s sometimes spectacular 67 featured five birdies, an eagle and three bogeys.
A modest one-under par through 11 holes, Rowe really got it going on a six-hole stretch on the back-nine. A chip-in on the 354-yard, par-four 12th hole ignited Rowe’s round.
At the 497-yard, par-five, Rowe rolled in a little down-hill five-footer for birdie to get to three-under par. Then he capped the run with a birdie at the par-five 17th.
“It was the best round of my life,” said Rowe, whose best-ever finish at the County Amateur is a seventh. “It was a career best. It was surprising today. Hopefully, I can do it again tomorrow. Now I feel the pressure. I just wanted to come out and finish in the top ten.
“I was one-under on the front and then made about a six-footer for par on number 10,” added Rowe. “Once I got through 11 and 12, I thought I just had to concentrate. The rest of the way I just tried to focus on the where I wanted to miss it. Putting was huge. With all the short par-fours, I’ve got to hit it close. I was able to put it within five feet every time. I just tried to keep my round going.”
Rowe counted only two pars among his first eight holes. With a three-footer at the par-four first and a ten-footer at the par-four second, Rowe got off on the right foot.
There was the matter of three bogeys – at the par-four third, the par-three sixth and the par-four eighth. But Rowe also drained a 25-foot putt for eagle at the 498-yard, par-five seventh hole.
“I drove it well,” said Rowe. “I putted extremely well. I made a lot of putts today, more than I usually do. With the wind, I just picked my shot and executed it.
“I like to see how I hold up in the county,” Rowe continued. “You normally get the best guys in the county out here. I love competitive golf.”
Brown overcame a double bogey at Number Two and a front-nine 37, with a three-under 32 on the back.
Brown birdied the par-four tenth hole and the par-five 14th to get his round to two-under par. He stumbled with a bogey at the par-three 15th hole, but got that back and then some with an eagle at Number 17.
“I really didn’t even know where I was,” said Brown of his score. “We were just having fun. I double bogeyed Number Two, but I knew I had time to get it back. I felt like it was just average.
“I didn’t drive it as well as I thought I would,” added Brown. “I just kind of got it around and made some birdies where I had to. The field’s a little smaller, but the better guys in the county are here. I think it’s (Sunday’s final round) going to be a shoot-out. I’m kind of looking forward to it.”
Kersey’s 69 may have been the round of missed opportunities.
After birdieing Number One from three feet and Number Two from five feet, Kersey went a modest one-under par over his next 16 holes. Kersey’s round consisted of nines of 35-34, and he was a combined two-over par on Fairview’s four par-fives.
“I played OK. It wasn’t great, but it was solid,” said Kersey. “I started off with two birdies and then it was steady from here. I do like to get off to a good start. I like to get under quick. So it was frustrating to get out to a good start and then fizzle out.
“I like to think I can win,” Kersey added. “I want to do the best I can. I enjoy coming out to the local tournaments. I enjoy play in individuals. I enjoy seeing all the guys.”
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59th Annual Lebanon County Amateur Golf Championships
(at 6,011-yard, par-71 Fairview Golf Course)
Saturday’s Opening Round Scores
Mat Rowe 67
Dan Brown 69
Cody Kersey 69
Darren Lutz 70
Doug Swanson 70
Jim Gardner 71
Chris Gebhard 71
Brian Auman 72
Steve Allwein 73
John DiGiacomo 73
Eric Boltz 74
Jeff Hoke 74
Tyler Massar 74
Justin Arnt 75
Noah Firestone 75
Skeet Wentling 75
Jesse Brown 76
Tony Deraco 76
Kerry Wentling 76
Steve Sherk 77
Jeff True 77
Ryan Weaber 77
Jon Day 78
Tom Plunket 80
Jordan Rhen 81
Perry Umlauf 83
Jim Pesta 85
Raymond Buckman 85
Jon Hurst 88
Sunday’s Tee Times
7:30 a.m. – Jon Hurst, Jim Pesta, Raymond Buckman
7:39 a.m. – Perry Umlauf, Jordan Rhen, Tom Plunket
7:48 a.m. – Jon Day, Steve Sherk, Jeff True
7:57 a.m. – Ryan Weaber, Jesse Brown, Kerry Wentling, Tony Deraco
8:06 a.m. – Noah Firestone, Skeet Wentling, Justin Arnt, Eric Boltz
8:15 a.m. – Tyler Massar, Jeff Hoke, John DiGiacomo, Steve Allwein
8:24 a.m. – Brian Auman, Chris Gebhard, Jim Gardner, Doug Swanson
8:33 a.m. – Darren Lutz, Cody Kersey, Dan Brown, Mat Rowe