FORT WAYNE – Finally, the ball landed; although it took awhile.
As Mitch Rutledge returned his driver back to his father, Bob, who doubled as caddy, counselor and cheerleader, the two bumped fists, the way men do when something cool just occurred.
Three hundred and 50 yards away, perhaps weary from its long flight, Rutledges ball at last came to rest and caught its breath on the close-cut greenery of the 18th fairway at Pine Valley Country Club.
One short wedge shot (so close that he paced it to the green) and one shorter putt later, the young Rutledge – a day away from his 19th birthday – strode from the 410-yard No. 18 with his dad, his ninth birdie and an 8-under score of 63 to take ownership of the first-round lead in the annual Mens City Golf Tournament.
A two-time winner of the Missouri Class 2A high school state tournament who will attend Michigan State on a golf scholarship, Rutledge birdied half of the holes over the 6,649-yard course and owns a four-shot margin over defending champion Scott Pieri, who shot a 4-under 67. Close behind are three tied for third at 68: Sam Till Jr., Dustan Mohr and Joe Hayden.
Im 19, but Ive had a ton of experience in high-level golf tournaments, said Rutledge, who last year won the Missouri qualifier in the USGA Amateur Public Links Tournament. What Im going to try to do is forget about it and dont think about it anymore – wake up (today) and start a new day.
I know those rounds dont come around all the time, so Im going to try to have the same game plan (today); just hit quality shots and try to make as many putts as I can.
Rutledge tore apart the three par-5 holes with birdies at the 512-yard 5th, 601-yard 12th and 533-yard 15th. He birdied the three successive par-4 holes at 7, 8 and 9 to make the turn with a 5-under 30. His birdie at 10 was his fourth straight, but he gave a shot back at the No. 13 par-3 hole when he chili-dipped his wedge off the tee, coming up 15 yards short, then two-putted for his only bogey.
Ive always known with my distance and the way I hit my driver, I have the ability to go low, but my short games never been good enough to get that deep, Rutledge said.
Although Rutledge attended high school in Missouri, he stays with his father during the summers and was a member at Pine Valley, where he said he played 30 to 40 times.
Pieri is quite familiar with his young opponent.
I knew the scores were going to be good; I mean, 63, Im a little surprised at that. I dont think you ever expect that, Pieri said. Mitch is a tremendously talented young player. Hes good. Im not surprised he shot that score.
But Pieri, a four-time city champ who has won three of the last four tournaments, says there is still plenty of golf to be played.
Weve got two days left, Pieri said. Weve got to post a 54-hole score. Weve got 18 on the board. Hes a good young player. Well see (today) how we stack up.
(Today) you try to close that gap a little bit going into the last day, and then go from there.
Notes: Rain and lightning suspended play late Saturday. The late threesome groups will remain the same for the second round. For full pairings, to go to the Fort Wayne Golf Association web site at www.fwga.com.