Santa Rosa, Calif. – A year ago at the Country Club of St. Albans in suburban St. Louis, Kansas came within three shots of winning its first USGA Men’s State Team title.
With the incentive of a runner-up finish still fresh, Kansas arrived at Mayacama Golf Club this week hoping to go one spot better.
Led by a 2-under-par 69 from 51-year-old Bryan Norton of Mission Hills, Kansas began that quest in strong fashion on Monday, posting a 2-under 140 total on the 6,726-yard Jack Nicklaus design to share the early first-round lead with Washington. Charlie Stevens of Wichita added an even-par 71.
Washington received an opening 69 from former major-league pitcher Erik Hanson of Kirkland and an even-par 71 from Derek Berg of Kenmore in the count-two-of-three format. Mike Haack of Bellevue had a non-scoring 73.
Georgia, paced by Doug Hanzel’s 68, stood in third position at even-par 142.
Mike Ballo Jr., a recent St. John’s University graduate from Stamford, Conn., had the morning’s low round with a 67, one stroke off the competitive course record. Connecticut, however, posted a 4-over 146 team total.
Twenty-six teams, including defending champion Pennsylvania and host California, had afternoon starting times.
“We had a good day,” said Norton, the 2003 U.S. Mid-Amateur runner-up who is the only returning player from the 2009 Kansas team. “It was a tough start this morning because it was chilly.”
Along with the cooler temperatures, the players also had to deal with a one-hour suspension for heavy fog.
“I didn’t even hear the horn,” said Hanson, who had just hit his third shot to the par-5 second hole when play was suspended at 8:16 a.m. PDT.
Hanson, competing in his fifth Men’s State Team, finished with five birdies – four on the first nine – and three bogeys. He might have gone even lower had a few more quality birdie chances dropped on the second nine.
“I was inside 7 feet on 12, 13 and 17 and missed all three,” said Hanson, who compiled an 89-84 record in 10 seasons with Boston, Toronto, Seattle and Cincinnati. “It’s only the first day, so it doesn’t really mean a lot. But it’s good to get off to a good start.”
Hanson and Berg were both on last year’s team that tied for eighth, which matched Washington’s best finish in the event.
“So far so good,” said Berg, whose up-and-down par at No. 18 secured his even-par finish. “I am looking forward to the next two days.
“The greens were just perfect. Erik and Mike [Haack] are good putters, so when the greens are good, we can make some good scores.”
Kansas arrived in time for only one practice round on Monday. The team played in the chillier morning conditions, so Norton is a little concerned about how Kansas might perform in the afternoon on Wednesday when they more than likely will face warmer weather.
“We talked about trying to find a way to get through this morning and then tomorrow getting some warmth in the afternoon,” said Norton. “Our only concern is we haven’t played in those conditions.”
Georgia, also seeking its first Men’s State Team title after finishing second in 2007 and sixth last year, played solid golf over the final nine holes. Hanzel, of Savannah, and David Noll Jr. of Dalton each had 32s, but the latter struggled on the first nine with a 6-over 42, thanks to three poor swings.
“It’s crazy,” said Noll, competing in his fifth consecutive Men’s State Team. “I played some good golf on the front … and I was six over. I was in total shock.
“[My caddie and I] talked about it on the 10th tee and we were going to bear down and shoot a good score. I told him there were 45 holes left. This is a mini-marathon. Let’s just think of it that way.”
Hanzel was much steadier. He hit all 18 greens in regulation and made three birdies, all on the second nine. He knocked it to 2 feet with an 8-iron at No. 12, to 5 feet with a sand wedge at No. 16 and chipped it to 18 inches at the par-5 18th.
“It was good ball-striking,” said Hanzel, a 53-year-old physician who competed for Georgia in the 2005 MST and has qualified for nine U.S. Amateurs and two Mid-Amateurs. “I’ve shot lower rounds, but it was very steady today. I think I missed one fairway and hit every green.”
Ballo has had a very strong past few months in what is his final summer as an amateur. He successfully defended his Ike Championship, one of the premier events within the Metropolitan Golf Association, and was third at the Northeast Amateur.
On Tuesday, he jump-started what was a steady round by knocking his approach shot from 130 yards at the par-4 10th hole to within a foot for a miraculous par after his tee shot found the hazard.
He followed with birdies at 12, 14, 15 and 18.
“Under these [championship] circumstances, I think it’s by far the best I have played,” said Ballo, who plans to turn professional in November and play the Winter Series on the Hooters Tour in Florida.
Ballo decided not to enter PGA Tour Qualifying School this fall due to finances, and he also wanted a chance to represent Connecticut at this event. The 22-year-old is headed to Europe next month with a group of amateurs from the MGA for a special competition in France.
Even with his team struggling in the first round, Ballo’s effort put him in contention for individual medalist honors. The USGA started awarding a medal for the low individual at the MST last year. South Carolina’s Mark Anderson, now on the Nationwide Tour, edged out Mike Van Sickle of victorious Pennsylvania by a stroke in 2009.
“That’s definitely an added incentive,” said Ballo. “Hopefully we can play well [as a team] the next few days. Obviously, I am here to represent Connecticut, but individual medalist would definitely be an honor.”
The second round of the 54-hole competition is scheduled for Wednesday, with the final round on Thursday.
David Shefter is a USGA staff writer. E-mail him with questions or comments at email@example.com.