T-R CITY GOLF: Familiar faces frequent championship flight

While a cool, calm August breeze strolled through the course, Saturday’s survive-and-advance mentality left many sweating through an otherwise comfortable opening round.

Limiting the damage while navigating the unforgiving fairways of Elmwood Country Club, 16 players put themselves in position for the title with nine strokes separating the championship flight entering the final round of the 26th annual Times-Republican City Golf Tournament.

Troy Underhill established the early pace firing six birdies en route to a three-under 67, earning his eighth trip to Sunday’s finale.

Tim Rohde finished two back at 69, while Ben Wollam, last year’s third-place finisher, and two-time champion Sam Zoske each made even par to round out today’s top grouping.

2012 runner-up Bill Benda, Clint Schneider, Matt Estabrook and Todd Weaver tied for fifth with each carding a 72, while Alex Ward (73) and his father Mike Ward (74) rounded out the top 10.

Jake Walahoski and Pat Ryan turned in 75s, while the final quartet of Chad Moler, David Baccam, Denny Gould and Michael Fosdick each qualified with 76. Twelve of the 16 finalists bring aboard experience playing in the championship flight, which features five seniors, as the American Legion Golf Course’s open fairways welcome the field today.

Though on Saturday, Underhill followed the straight and narrow to build his slim cushion.

“I kept my driver in the fairway for the most part other than hole 15,” said Underhill, who opened with a 34 on the front nine and followed with four birdies after the turn.

“Putting on the dews early in the morning slowed things down a bit so it was a little bit tougher, but it seemed like right around No. 10 they started rolling really good.”

Rohde also utilized a strong day with his driver to cruise through the front nine at 34, before overcoming a double bogey on 14.

“I feel great to be in the position I’m in on this course,” said Rohde, who earned his 23rd trip to Sunday’s finale – the most in tournament history. “Legion is a little more wide open though I’m hitting the driver good and straight, which makes a big difference on this course.”

Wollam and Zoske were well aware of the strict fairways but maneuvered past some miscues to stay in the hunt.

“I scrambled really well today,” said Wollam, who overcame a bogey on hole 2, with birdies on 4 and 7 to finish one-under at 34 on the front nine. The former Bobcat split bogeys on 12 and 14 with a birdie at 13, eventually closing with a 36.

“My round sort of shifted right there. I started missing a couple tee shots, but I made some nice saves for par and even a bogey. I didn’t have my best today but I think I made the most of it.”

Zoske, who claimed championships in 2009 and 2011, brushed off a sluggish start including three bogeys through the first seven holes to fire a 34 on the back nine.

“It was a grind,” said Zoske, who negated a double bogey he sent over the road on 11 with an eagle chip-in on 13. “That kind of got me back in the flow to grind a little more. I made some good putts coming in, drove the green on 18 and two putted. … I just wanted to keep it around even par here.”

Benda, a three-time titlist and six-time runner-up (including 2012), punched his ticket for his 19th championship flight, making the most of his short game late.

“The last nine holes was lot of chipping and putting. I kind off lost my swing a little bit,” said Benda, who is one of many looking forward to today’s move to the Legion. “Hopefully tomorrow at my home course I’ll fall back to more comfortable situations.”

Ryan, who wrapped up his 75 with a 36 after the turn, is also ready to hit the reset button with a change of scenery.

“I hit a triple bogey (on hole six) and it just kind of set me on the wrong track,” said Ryan, who is in title contention for the 22nd time. “I just could never get going the whole round.”

Struggling with his short game, Alex Ward never saw his game take flight either Saturday, though one birdie was more than enough to make the top 16 for Sunday.

“I hit a lot of greens and hit close to a lot of greens too. … I just didn’t putt very well,” said Ward, who shook off four bogeys to reach his sixth straight finals – including a second place tally in 2011.

“It’s tough to score well out here when you don’t take advantage of the holes, but tomorrow is shaping up to be interesting.”

Today’s 16-player championship flight is split into four groups for the final 18 holes at American Legion starting at 1 p.m. The final foursome of Wollam, Zoske, Rohde and Underhill tees off at 1:30 p.m.