Cole McNeal scored a spectacular birdie on the 15th hole at Pine Hill Country Club Friday that illustrated his range as a player and it helped him shoot a 2-under-par 70 to grab the individual first-round lead in the Calhoun County High School Boys Golf Championship.
The Alexandria sophomore was the only player to beat par on the day. He holds a three-shot lead over Oxford’s T.K. Waugh and Chandler Allen and a four-shot lead over teammate Dalton Chandler. Jacksonville’s John Michael Herndon and White Plains’ Dustin Travis are six shots off the lead.
“There was a lot of pressure,” said McNeal, the runnerup in this event a year ago. “I just wanted to play as good as I could … and see how it ended up.”
In the team portion, Oxford met its goal of putting four scores in the 70s and opened a 13-shot lead over Alexandria. The Yellow Jackets shot 304. Jacksonville (333) is third, followed by White Plains (347) and Donoho (348).
As much as has been made about McNeal’s prodigious drives, he admitted his chipping “saved me” Friday. He hit 13 greens and got up-and-down for birdie four times.
None were as fun to watch as his play on 15.
Steaming over a hard lip-out on 14 for bogey, the hard-swinging left-hander angrily ripped a drive that fell through a stand of trees and into the fifth fairway. Ignoring advice to play safe, he asked a friend in the gallery if he thought he could birdie the hole.
He proceeded to rip a 4-iron into the stand of trees up near the green, nearly hitting his father in the process. Then -- in his version of Bubba Watson’s Masters-winning recovery shot – he hit a sand wedge off the pine straw from 40 yards out, through the trees, over the greenside bunker and got the ball to stop within eight feet of the hole.
He made the putt for birdie.
“The only thing that was going through my head on 15 is I had been planning on birdie-ing 15 all day,” McNeal said. “Once I hit my drive, I was like there was no way now. You can put yourself out of it just as easy as you can put yourself right back in it.”
It got him right back in the proper frame of mind and he proceeded to close out his round with a two-putt par on the par-3 16th.
The tournament concludes today with a 9 a.m. shotgun start.
In the team race, the spread among Oxford’s counting scores was a mere six shots. In addition to Waugh and Allen, the Yellow Jackets counted 79s from Cody Stewart and Cole Abney. After McNeal and Chandler, Alexandria counted 85 from Matt Cleghorn and 88 from Austin Smith.
“Our kids have played consistent at Pine Hill the last several years,” Oxford coach Darrell Cline said. “We set a goal of trying to put four scores in the 70s in any tournament we play in. That gets you in the ballpark of the 300, 315 range and I think after Day One that puts you in almost any tournament you’re in. We were fortunate enough to reach that goal today.”
Waugh’s round included four birdies and five bogeys and had the frustrating feature of regularly following a birdie with a bogey. The senior birdied only one of the par-5s despite being just off the green in 2 on all of them.
“I left a lot of birdies out there on the par-5s today,” Waugh said. “I didn’t get up and down very much. I made some good putts though.”
Allen’s best round of the season included three birdies and four bogeys. Twice the sophomore squeezed birdies between bogeys.
“There are four guys in the hunt there and we’ll just see who comes out on top,” Cline said. “It’s going to come down to, I guess, who makes maybe the last shot or the best shot throughout the day.”
Those shots Friday belonged to a mustang named McNeal.
Al Muskewitz covers golf for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.