USGA MEN'S STATE TEAM
Defending Champion Texas Among Four to Share Round 1 Lead September 28, 2016 | Birmingham, Ala. By Scott Lipsky, USGA

Joshua Irving's 68 on his 30th birthday Wednesday tied for the best individual round of the day. (USGA/Chris Keane)

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Birthday magic, local knowledge and some good old-fashioned shot-making all went a long way on Wednesday in the first round of the 12th USGA Men’s State Team Championship.

Ohio, Missouri, Connecticut and Texas each took advantage of at least one of the aforementioned elements to finish in a four-way tie for the lead, posting 2-under 140 on the 7,162-yard, par-71 West Course at the Country Club of Birmingham.

The United States Golf Association conducts the USGA Men’s State Team Championship on a biennial basis. It features teams of three players from all 50 states, as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Eighteen holes of stroke play are conducted over three days, with the two lowest scores of the three individuals counting as the team’s score for the round. Following Thursday’s second round, the field will be cut to the low 21 teams and ties.

Defending champion Texas was the lone team to post an under-par score during the afternoon wave, led by a 3-under 68 from Joshua Irving, who was celebrating his 30th birthday. Competing in his first Men’s State Team, Irving, of Dallas, carded six birdies during his round, with four of them coming during a five-hole stretch between Nos. 8 and 12. Feeling the pressure of representing a state that owns a record four titles, Irving made an 8-foot par save on No. 1 and then watched his 40-foot birdie try on No. 2 roll down a slope and sneak into the hole. His round, especially on the greens, gained momentum from there.

“It was a really special day. It kind of hit me last night during the [flag procession] ceremony how special of an occasion this was. It was the most pressure I’ve felt in a golf round in my amateur career,” said Irving, who has advanced to the quarterfinals of the last two U.S. Mid-Amateurs, including earlier this month at Stonewall in Elverson, Pa. “[The putt on No. 2] went in and everyone cheered and I raised the putter and it just got me into the zone of really competing.”

The putt would foreshadow the key to Irving’s round, as he also made birdie putts from approximately 30 and 25 feet on his way to matching the low individual score of the day. His lone rough stretch came on the inward nine, when his tee shot on the par-3 13th hole went into the hazard to the right of the green, leading to a double bogey, and he followed that up with a bogey on the par-4 14th.

Texas’ second counting score came from the lone returnee from the Lone Star State’s 2014 title squad, Zach Atkinson. The 34-year-old from Colleyville shot 1-over 72.

Irving’s 68 was matched by Connecticut’s Geoff Vartelas, who parred the first 11 holes before making birdies on Nos. 12 and 13. The recent Penn State graduate capped his round by dropping an 18-foot birdie putt on 18. Vartelas, along with his two Connecticut teammates, are all first-time Men’s State Team competitors, and Connecticut is the only team among the four leaders without any previous experience nor someone who played in the  in the 2013 U.S. Mid-Amateur at Birmingham.

Vartelas substituted experience for steady play and good shot-making.

“I just played really solid today. I hit a lot of greens, just played a lot of really good iron shots, and kind of got lucky. I put it in the right spots on the greens out here. There’s a lot of undulation [on the greens] and you’ve got to put it in the right position to give yourself a good look, and I managed to do that pretty well today,” said Vartelas, 22, of Cromwell.

Teammate John Flaherty posted 1-over 72 for the squad’s other counting score. “I got on a little bit of a roll on the back nine,” said Flaherty. “It was just a really solid round, didn’t hit many bad shots, and just took advantage of some opportunities.”

Bill Williamson's familiarity and comfort with the West Course was pivotal in the Ohio native's 2-under round of 69. (USGA/Chris Keane)

Missouri and Ohio were able to take advantage of previous West Course experience. Ohio’s Bill Williamson, who shot 2-under 69, was the runner-up to Michael McCoy in the 2013 Mid-Amateur, and was happy to relive the good vibes he got from his deep run three years ago.

“I’ve got a good golfing memory. I remember everywhere I hit it in every match. Just being comfortable on the property helps,” said Williamson, 39, of Cincinnati. “I hit it close a lot, which is good. That [birdie putt on No. 18] from maybe 15 feet was the longest putt I made.”

Jeffrey Scohy, 39, of Bellbrook, Ohio, missed the cut in the 2013 Mid-Amateur in 2013, but managed an even-par 71.

Missouri’s Richard Berkmeyer also missed match play in the 2013 Mid-Amateur, but was very comfortable on Wednesday, firing a 2-under 69. The 42-year-old from Wildwood has also competed on the Donald Ross layout in several other competitions, and used the experience to card four birdies.

“The great thing about this course, the greens can be a little confusing at times, but it’s pretty straightforward from tee to green,” said Berkmeyer, who combined with teammate Brad Nurski, the 2014 Mid-Amateur runner-up, for the Show-Me State’s two counting scores. “It’s firmer and faster this year, and that’s better for my game. If you hit it on the fairway, hit it on the green, that makes it a little easier, and I did that today.”

Pennsylvania, which features five-time USGA champion Nathan Smith, 2015 U.S. Senior Amateur champion Chip Lutz, and 2016 U.S. Open qualifier Chris Crawford, is two strokes behind the co-leaders at even-par 142. Crawford, 22, of Bensalem, led the way for the trio with a 2-under 69, one of just six individuals to break par in Round 1, joining Vartaleas, Irving, Berkmeyer, Williamson and Delaware’s Jay Whitby, who posted 2-under 69.

Host state Alabama struggled to an 8-over 150 and currently sits outside the cutline in a tie for 26th.

Scott Lipsky is the manager of websites and digital platforms for the USGA. Email him at slipsky@usga.org.

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