Once burned out, golfer burns Montreux course
Appeal Sports Writer
RENO – Will MacKenzie once burned out on golf. For approximately nine years after graduating high school in North Carolina, he didn’t pick up a club.
Instead, he moved to Montana. He climbed rocks, kayaked and was a snowboarder.
“I went through a 25-year-old mid-life crisis,” MacKenzie said. “I had to decide if I was going to snowboard or kayak the rest of my life. I saw Payne (Stewart) win the 99 Open (at Pebble Beach) and thought it was sweet. That inspired me to grab the clubs and go practice again.”
MacKenzie spent the next six years working on his game, and it magically came together on Thursday afternoon.
The second-year pro fired a 9-under-par 63, a round that included three eagles and three bogeys, to take the first-day lead at the 8th annual Reno-Tahoe Open at Montreux Golf & Country Club.
The 63 was the lowest first-round score in tournament history, surpassing the 64 by Vaughn Taylor in 2005 and the 64 by Brian Watts back in 2001. The red numbers were abundant, as 65 players shot under par, and 83 players were at par or better.
Bob Estes is a stroke back at 64. There’s a four-way tie for third at 66 with former champion John Cook, Rich Beem, Nick Watney and David McKenzie. At 67 are Pat Perez, Alex Cejka and Craig Barlow.
MacKenzie’s three eagles in a single round was a tournament record, and the three eagles equaled what the field accomplished in two rounds last year.
“I don’t think so,” MacKenzie replied when asked if he’d ever had three eagles in the same round. “I remember having two (in one round).”
MacKenzie has always considered himself a solid ball-striker, but he was 180th on the tour in putting, prompting him to change to the claw grip at The International.
“During the pro-am in Aspen, Chris DeMarco was telling me how it changed his career, so I thought about it,” MacKenzie said. “I played the front nine with a conventional grip and had minus-4. The back nine I putted with the claw grip and had plus-9. I now have confidence with the putter.
“I don’t want to say I had the yips, but I wasn’t making it from anywhere. I wanted to stick with a short putter.”
The key to his round was that he played the four par-5s in 7-under-par, which more than made up for his three bogeys.
His first eagle came on the par-5 584-yard 11th. He blasted a 3-wood to within 17 feet of the pin and drained the putt.
MacKenzie made the turn at 5-under-par, but dropped a stroke when he bogeyed No. 2, the 171-yard par-3.
His second eagle came on No. 4, the 518-yard par-5. He drained a 52-footer to go 6-under-par. The third eagle came on his finishing hole, the 616-yard par-5 9th. He pounded a 3-wood inside 10 feet and drained another putt.
The eagle gave MacKenzie the lead over Estes, who needed only 20 putts to get around the 7,472-yard layout.
The highlight of Estes’ round was an eagle 3 on the par-5 17th when he chipped in from 86 yards.
“It (my drive) kicked into the left rough, which I then hit out to about 86 yards from the green,” Estes said. “I knew I had to hit it good because of the elevated green. I tried to land it short. It went a couple feet past and spun back. Even though I couldn’t see it well, I did see it go in.”
Estes hasn’t won since the 2002 season, and he’d like nothing better than to win the RTO.
“I recreated my golf game,” Estes said when asked about his winless streak. “Even though I won two tournaments in 2001, I continued to work on my swing with Greg Koy and continued to get better.”
Estes was using a baseball grip in 2001, but at the Kemper Open in 2002, he won using the interlock grip.
“I used the conventional grip and felt much better, but my wires were still crossed,” Estes said. “I was learning to hit the ball squarely instead of over the top, making better contact with the new grip.”
Estes changed permanently toward the end of the 2003 season.
Estes only had two birdie putts over 10 feet during his round.
The wind was almost existent when the morning group teed off, and the low scores reflected that.
Beem, who won the 2003 PGA Championship, celebrated his 36th birthday with eight birdies and two bogeys.
“It’s been a pretty good day so far,” Beem said. “I hit the ball extremely well and putted even better. My caddie and I did a good job on the greens today. I just paid attention to where the mountain was at all times. It breaks away from it. The hole looked like the size of a garbage can today.
“I played really good golf on the front side and didn’t continue the momentum on the back.”
After a par on the opening hole, Beem drained a 22-foot putt on the par-3 171-yard second hole, starting his string of birdies. After a 293-yard drive on No. 3, Beem knocked in a 7-footer for his second straight bird. A two-putt from more than 50 feet on the par-5 518-yard 4th earned him another birdie. He ended the barrage with a 10-footer on No. 5, a 367-yard par-4.
After a par on No. 6, Beem’s drive on the 225-yard par-3 landed on the front fringe, and he promptly drained his longest putt of the day to go 5-under.
Beem got a break on No. 8 when his tee shot bounced off a rock on the left side of the fairway and bounced right back into the fairway. He collected a two-putt par.
Beem concluded his sizzling front nine with a two-putt birdie on No. 9, a 616-yard par-5. Beem recorded his last birdie on the par-3 186-yard 12th with a 6-foot putt.
Beekm dropped two shots on the next two holes, bogeying the par-4 355-yard 13th and the 491-yard par-4 14th.
“I didn’t hit bad shots, just had a couple of bad breaks and a misread,” Beem said.
Cook, who won the RTO in 2001, put together a nice six-birdie, no-bogey round. He too was in the morning group (7:11) that started in pristine conditions.
“That’s a pretty early tee time for these old bones,” Cook said. “I hit quality shots today and never really got into much trouble. Overall, it was a solid round.
“I like playing in this weather and altitude. For whatever reason, I’ve had success at altitude whether it’s been at the International or here. I feel I adjust my game really well. The greens are great here, and I’m comfortable in my surroundings.”
In fact, that’s how Cook chooses the tournaments he enters.
“I’ve played spotty; 14 times,” Cook said. “I’m kind of playing in tournaments as I get in, not worrying too much about it. I play golf courses I feel I can be competitive on. I pick and choose where I want to play.”
Cook stayed out of trouble off the tee, enabling him to attack the flagsticks with a vengeance.
After two straight pars, Cook hit a 9-iron to 6 feet and drained the putt for a birdie on No. 3, a 429-yard par-4. On No. 5, he pounded a wedge to within inches of the cup at the 367-yard par-4. He finished the front side with a 6-foot birdie putt on No. 8 and an 8-foot birdie putt on No. 9.
Watney had four birdies on the front side, the longest putt being 8 feet. On the back side, he drained birdie putts of 12 and 2 feet, respectively.
“The course is playing as easy as it can right now,” Watney said. “The greens are soft, making scoring conditions ideal.”
Big things were expected of Watney when he joined the tour, but he’s been unable to get a win thus far.
“I would have liked to have won by now, but when I got started I knew I had a long way to go,” Watney said. “Winning is a goal, but I understand that’s a process. I haven’t won or had a high finish, but I’ve had about seven top-25s.”