MANCHESTER – Ricky Jones of Thomaston found a softer than usual Augusta Country Club to his liking Tuesday in the opening round of the 94th Maine Amateur.
Jones, 41, a two-time state amateur champion along with a host of other titles, fired a 4-under 66 to grab a three-shot lead over four other golfers.
Jones, headed for the U.S. Public Links championship in Virginia on Friday, had four birdies and no bogeys on the par-70, 6,214-yard layout.
With all the rain the state has received, courses are wet. Augusta is no exception but despite the rain, the course was in excellent condition. Because of the moisture, the sponsoring Maine State Golf Association allowed players to pick, clean and replace in their own fairway.
The greens were receptive to shots so golfers could be more aggressive in their approaches.
“The greens are soft. The course is kind of playing the opposite of what it usually does,” said Jones.
Jones remembered last year’s Maine Open at Augusta when, as he described it, “It was fast and firm.”
Another difference Jones pointed out: “I usually shoot around even par here. I can never seem to make many birdies.”
That changed. Jones rolled in his only birdie on the front nine when he sank a 15-footer on the par-3 seventh.
Jones then had three birdies on the back nine — 14, 15 and 18. On 14, he made a slightly downhill 7-footer. On the par-3 15th, he had a tap-in for birdie.
“It was a perfect 9-iron,” said Jones of the shot that left him no more than a foot away.
On the downhill par-5 18th, Jones knocked his 3-wood second shot just short of the green. He chipped up and sank a 4-footer.
“Usually when I get past the 10th here, I know there are birdie chances remaining,” he said.
At 1-under 69 were homeclubber Ryan Gay, Brian Bilodeau of Martindale, Tommy Stirling of Sable Oaks and Mike O’Brien, also of Sable Oaks.
Four shots back at 70 were Craig Chapman of Fox Ridge and Scott Sirois of the Woodlands.
Alone at 71 was 13-time Maine Amateur champion Mark Plummer of the host club.
Plummer was in the first group at 7 a.m. with defending champion Seth Sweet of Madison and Ashley Fifield of Sable Oaks.
Sweet shot a 75; Fifield had a 72.
Also at 72 were Len Cole of Penobscot Valley, Jason Gall of Augusta, J.J. Harris of Bath, Sam Grindle of Island and Jordan Jones of Boothbay.
Ricky Jones always like his chances in the state amateur, but perhaps even more so this time.
Last month he won the Paul Bunyan tournament by seven shots. He shot a 7-under 65 in a recent MSGA weekly amateur at Oakdale Golf Course in Mexico.
The front-runner could be tough to catch, but Jones acknowledges there’s still plenty of golf left, 36 holes against a strong field.
When it was suggested it was his tournament to lose, Jones said: “Golf can be a strange game. You never know what tomorrow will bring.”
His strategy won’t change in the second round.
“I’m going to come out, hit the ball in the fairway, then hit the ball on the green and try to make some putts,” he said.
Jones missed only a handful of fairways with his tee shots in the opening round.
What helped his round was that he hit 16 of 18 greens.
The ones he did miss, Jones was able to make par. On the downhill par-3 second, Jones got up and down from a bunker. On the short par-4 16th, Jones was short of the green but chipped up and sank a 4-footer for par.
“I have a new 56-degree wedge and I don’t know how far it goes,” said Jones. “I peeked a little on the shot, wanting to know how far it would go.”
Gay is hoping to end his amateur career with a fourth state amateur title.
Winning it on his home course would be perfectly scripted. He plans to turn pro the day after the tournament.
“I hit in awesome,” said Gay, who played for St. John’s University this season. “I missed a lot of putts. Still, I can’t be too unhappy with an under- par round.”
Bilodeau said the key to his round was keeping his tee shots in the fairways.
“I missed two fairways and hit 16 greens,” said Bilodeau. “You have to keep it in the fairway. You have to be able to control your iron shots. The rough is tough.”
He had five birdies and four bogeys. One of his bogeys was a three-putt from 4 feet on No. 12.
“I had a downhill putt. I just tapped it but it went 6 feet by. The greens aren’t overly fast but the putts can get away from you,” he said.
Both Bilodeau and Stirling birdied the first two holes.
Stirling came into the tournament playing well. In back-to-back weekend days recently, he shot a 68 at Purpoodock in Cape Elizabeth and a 67 at Gorham.
“I hit it pretty solid, birdied the first two and then tried to keep it around par the rest of the way,” said Stirling, a senior-to-be at Southwest Oklahoma State. “The course was very forgiving but you had to play it to the right spots on the greens.
“The greens were perfect.”
The 132-player field will be cut to the low 40 and ties following the second round.
Tom Chard can be contacted at 791-6419 or at [email protected]