Mike Williams and Benji Willmon of Fort Payne set a modern-era, single-round tournament scoring record Friday when they shot 17-under-par 55 in the scramble format at Silver Lakes in the opening round of the 34th annual Classic.
At the end of the birdie-fest, the two bank executives held a one-shot lead over the teams of McGatha-Ellison and Brennan Clay-Dan Glidewell.
Ten other teams also shot scores in the 50s during the round.
The leaders’ 17-under broke the old scramble record of 16-under, set by McGatha and Ellison en route to their first SKCC title in 2003, and the 16-under Gary Wigington and Randy Reaves shot in a modified scramble round at Cane Creek. McGatha and Ellison set the overall modern-era tournament scoring record last year at 39-under-par.
“I cannot believe the scores are this low,” McGatha said as he watched the results flash across the screen in the clubhouse. “We’ve got more low scores at the top of the leaderboard than I can remember in several years.”
Williams, 45, and Willmon, 52, had wanted to play in the Sunny King for several years, but one of their personal or playing schedules always seemed to conflict.
This year, they decided nothing would interfere and, after entering late in the process, made the most of it Friday.
Their round featured 15 birdies, two pars and an eagle. At one point, they put together a string of 11 birdies in a row. The only holes they failed to shave a stroke were the Mindbreaker 2 and Heartbreaker 5 — both par 3s. The eagle came on the par-5 Heartbreaker 7 when Williams hit a 4-hybrid from 220 yards to three feet.
Their round overtook early leaders Eric Messer and Scott Murphree, who posted 57 out of the second group of the day.
“We just both played real well,” said Williams, a loan officer for First Bank of the South in Rainsville, of which his partner is CEO.
“You hate to say it was easy, but everything went right. None of us really hit a real bad shot. It seemed like one of us would knock it 6, 8-feet every hole. I’m real pleased with the round.
“We wanted to get off to a good start and be sure we were in the hunt. To be honest with you I was thinking if we could get to 12-, 13-, 14-under that would get us in there. Really wasn’t expecting to come out and shoot 17.”
But when Willmon made a 15-footer for birdie on Mindbreaker 7 after both players hit poor approaches from 35 yards, Williams felt the team could shoot a real low number.
“We both hit two or three critical shots, critical putts, to keep our round going,” Willmon said. “The shot he hit on the last par-5 was incredible.”
Most of the contenders started hearing about Williams and Willmon going deep either at the turn or during their back nine.
But players like Dan Griffin and Scott Eaton — one of two teams that shot 58 — were determined not to pay attention to the buzz.
They played their back nine in 8-under and were 9-under over their final 10 holes, 13-under after making back-to-back pars on their second and third holes of the day.
“When we got to 9 and everybody started talking about the 17,” Griffin said, “(Eaton) was saying look at all those guys talking about the 17; now they’re going to probably go down worrying about it. We’re not going to worry about what they shot, we’re going to shoot our score.”
“There’s so much golf in this thing, you have to worry about what you’re doing and just try to put three good rounds together and see how that shakes out at the end,” Eaton said. “You start worrying about how many you’re back on the first day, you’ll be 30 back going into the third round.”
Griffin and Eaton may have been keeping their head down, but the score atop the leaderboard spurred Clay and Glidewell.
They started the day with an eagle and three straight birdies, but birdied their last 10 holes in a row to get to 16-under.
“We found out on our ninth hole and we knew we had to play good,” Glidewell said.
“We were thinking, ‘God, we’re 11 back,” added Clay.
McGatha and Ellison were hot right from the start. They birdied their first 11 holes in a row. They missed the par-4 Heartbreaker 3, then ran off another five in a row before parring their final hole of the day after hitting what they called their worst fairway shots of the day.
“The first thing out of Jaylon’s mouth (after a quick visit to the clubhouse after 9) was our scramble record just got broken,” McGatha said. “I said, ‘wow,’ we’ve got to burn the back up now. We were fighting for 18.”
The championship flight moves to the modified scramble today at Cider Ridge Golf Club in Oxford. Their final round is the best-ball format at Anniston Country Club on Sunday.
Al Muskewitz covers golf for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.