As it draws in the top amateur golfers from around the nation with a strong international field in town, Sunnehanna County Club is designed to reward golfers that possess a streak of ingenuity in their game when the course gears up for its annual Sunnehanna Amateur Tournament for Champions.
The course – in its tournament conditions – can prove daunting for strangers to the A.W. Tillinghast-designed course and even those who have seen the course repeatedly.
Four players in this year’s field of 89 hail from spots within an hour of the Westmont course, though that’s not implying that any of the quartet have a leg up on the pack.
Sunnehanna Country Club champion Derek Hayes, of Johnstown, carded an opening-round 79 with a pair of double bogeys and a triple bogey on No 14. He did pick up birdies on Nos. 2, 11 and 18.
According to Hayes, the roughs around the course lived up to their name, punishing anyone that dared to put a ball in the thick grass.
“It’s night and day,” Hayes said. “The roughs are so much higher than we’re used to. The pins they use, we never see up here on a regular basis. I’d say that there is no home-course advantage for the tournament.”
Somerset’s Nick Sanner – the Greater Johnstown Open champion – had a similar day, carding seven bogeys, a double bogey and a triple bogey against a pair of birdies to finish with 80.
The Rockwood Area High School product, who has golfed Sunnehanna in the past, hadn’t seen the course like this. That led to a sluggish start out of the gate where Sanner tried to compensate for the task ahead.
“I was trying to steer the ball a little bit off the first couple of tees,” Sanner said. “Just in the rough, I was just dead. I would really try to make something happen out of it and I ended up getting a taste of my own medicine.”
A pair of Westmoreland County golfers – Ron DeNunzio of Greensburg and Will Wears of Latrobe – have also tackled the course before, although sparingly in Wears’ case.
“I’ve played here once or twice the last couple of years then I played here (Tuesday) in the Am-Am and one day last week,” said Wears, who shot a 78. “I hadn’t really ever seen like it was (Tuesday) until then. I’d heard it was really hard. It was a tough day.”
“I missed a couple fairways by about 5 or 6 yards then I got on a bogey train. Not terrible shots, just not in the fairway and if you’re not in the fairway, then you’re hacking out and if you’re hitting close from there, then you aren’t making par.”
DeNunzio posted a 74 with just three holes played above par.
“The rough is definitely different,” DeNunzio said. “Probably the thickest rough I’ve ever played. The greens are about the same as I’ve always played but the rough is the most difficult thing around here.”
The course, with a higher degree of difficulty than the one that members see during the year, isn’t the heartless monster that some cards on Wednesday indicated.
It just takes a softer plan of attack according to co-leader Michael Cromie.
“I love this golf course because it’s kind of old school,” Cromie said.
“It really makes you think around the course, not just hitting a driver every hole. Not hitting that flag at every hole. That’s kind of my game, too, because I’m not a bomber. I just managed my way around, thought my way around and see if I can make a few putts.”
Cromie and Sam Burns each recorded 65s on Wednesday to share the lead going into today’s second round.
Burns’ secret for success wasn’t exactly one that the field was disregarding in strategy, though the execution may have been lacking.
“It’s not easy,” Burns said. “Just avoid (the roughs) at all costs. You just gotta get in the fairway as much as possible.”
Shawn Curtis is the sports editor of The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/shawncurtis430.