BELLEFONTE Billy Gussler rescued his own round Wednesday, and with it some hope for northeastern Kentucky and Tri-State golfers, on a tough day for locals at the Natural Resource Partners Bluegrass Junior.
After double-bogeying No. 16 and bogeying the 17th hole, jeopardizing a strong start in the tournament's first round at Bellefonte Country Club, the Ashland native birdied No. 18 to finish with an even-par 70.
"It's really big confidence going into tomorrow," Gussler said of his close. "The birdie on 18 gets me kinda back to an even playing field for tomorrow, going into it with kind of a fresh start."
Gussler, part of a six-way tie for 12th, and everyone else is chasing Parker Smith of Louisville. The Bellarmine freshman-to-be produced six birdies between holes 5 and 13 en route to a 5-under-par 65.
"Today I really just focused on trying to hit my spots and be really aggressive," Smith said. "I keep telling myself in my head that I'm ready for this. Really just tried to dial it in.
"I hit the ball good and putted well. Just went out yesterday in the practice round and tried to find it."
Smith carded only one bogey and was generally smooth, all the way up until it was time to voice-record scorecard confirmation to an AJGA staffer after the round, at which point he comically misspoke a couple of times and had to start over.
Understandable, because it's a new procedure for everyone, in use in lieu of paper scorecards signed by multiple players — a no-no in the days of COVID-19. Smith said he had to print pin sheets at his hotel on Tuesday night, too, as opposed to obtaining copies at the course that had been handled by other people. And each player's score was digitally kept by another player in his or her group and updated online on a hole-by-hole basis.
"It was a lot different, but they're really handling it well," Smith said.
Smith, competing in his second Bluegrass Junior after tying for 21st last summer, was even-par through four holes before birdieing three of the last five holes before the turn.
"The first couple holes, I got off to a rocky start a little bit," the Ballard graduate said. "I haven't really competed in a while on the golf course, so it was a little bit different, but I finally changed my mindset and said, let's go get after it. It really helped build some momentum."
Smith was one of 11 boys to shoot under par on Wednesday. He is two shots clear of Javier Delgadillo of El Paso, Texas, and Peoria, Arizona's Max Lyons, who shot 67s.
Bridget Ma, of Windermere, Florida, and Kary Hollenbaugh, of New Albany, Ohio, each shot 69 to sit 1-under entering the second round of the 54-hole event. They lead Annie Huaxin Chang (China, by way of Winter Garden, Florida) and Alexia Siehl (Fort Mill, South Carolina) by one shot.
Gussler had the best round of any local golfer. The senior-to-be at The Hill (Pennsylvania) carded four birdies through his first 11 holes and remained 2-under through the 15th hole before his roller-coaster final three holes.
"I started off really well," Gussler said. "I kinda got into a rough patch near the end, but I held my round together really well."
Playing in his third Bluegrass Junior, Gussler intends the same approach in today's second round -- "an aggressive mentality on the front nine and play a little more conservatively" on the back, he said, "because the back nine I think is a little tighter and a little more difficult. So I'd like to hit a lot of drivers on the front nine, and the back nine, I hit more irons and hybrids off the tee boxes."
Among other area players, Connor Calhoun of Grayson shot a 71, capping his round with a birdie to climb into a tie for 18th. Greenup's Drew Stultz eagled No. 1 but found trouble on the back nine, double-bogeying Nos. 14 and 15 and compiling a 75, and younger brother Dylan Stultz carded an 80, birdieing Nos. 10 and 11 for a bright spot.
Trevin Mault of Portsmouth shot an 80 and Proctorville's Landon Roberts notched an 86.
In girls play, lone local Olivia Hensley of Boyd County shot an 81. She stands 25th.
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