BLUFFTON, South Carolina – Former Champion Ron Philo Jr. of Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, awakened the echoes of past signature performances by posting a near-flawless 6-under-par 66 Sunday on the West Course at Belfair for a one-stroke lead in the 52nd PGA Professional Championship presented by Cadillac, Club Car and OMEGA.
The 53-year-old Philo, the 2006 national champion, made six birdies, featuring a 45-foot putt on the eighth hole and a 20-foot par-saver on the 17th green. His only blemish came on the par-4 18th hole where he failed to get to the green in regulation and just missed a 12-foot par putt.
Alex Beach of Stamford, Connecticut, a PGA Assistant Professional at Westchester Country Club in Harrison, New York, was a stroke off the pace after a 67, also coming on the par-72 West Course.
Philo matched his personal-best 18-hole round in the largest all-professional national championship, and that came in 2007. He’s recorded 74 rounds since his 1993 debut, and last completed 72 holes in the event in 2012, when he finished 28th place.
“I guess the wind right a lot,” said Philo. “I made three putts that would be outside of normal. On No. 8, I rolled it up about 45 feet and it hit the hole and went in. The best putt I made on 15 was 12 feet, with an old cup in my way and I needed to give it room. Then, I made the 20-footer for par on 17.
“Being in the south and in golf all winter is a lot different than being away from golf that amount of time. I’ve got a student, Trevor Lopez, and I try to keep up with him and that helps me.”
Alex Knoll of Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, and 2013 Champion Rod Perry of Port Orange, Florida, led the chasers at 4-under-par. Knoll had a sterling 67 on the par-71 East Course, while Perry posted a 68 on the West.
Knoll is the PGA Head Professional at Blue Shamrock Golf Club in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and was the top performer on a course yielding a 76.6 stroke average- nearly two strokes higher than the West – among the 312-player field. Perry is the PGA Head Professional at Crane Lakes Golf and Country Club in Port Orange.
Ben Cook of Caledonia, Michigan; Jeffrey Kaiser of Verona, Wisconsin; and J.J. Wood of Houston, Texas, each had a 69.
Defending Champion Ryan Vermeer of Omaha, Nebraska, rallied from a tough start to finish with a 1-under-par 70 on the East Course.
The field will be trimmed to the low 90 scorers and ties Monday evening, and to the low 70 scorers and ties after Tuesday’s round. Following Wednesday’s final round, the low 20 scorers earn a berth in the 101st PGA Championship, May 16-19, at Bethpage Black Course in Farmingdale, New York.
A late afternoon charge by Beach positioned the 29-year old alone in second place, one stroke behind Philo. Beach had six birdies and one bogey (No. 18) on the West Course.
Beginning his round on the 11th hole, Beach started scorching hot with three birdies through his first four holes, including a near hole-in-one on the par-3 No. 14. His tee shot hit the flagstick and rolled to a few feet.
“[The near hole-in-one] really calmed me,” said Beach. “You’re always a little nervous coming into these tournaments. As soon as you can get a little groove going, it’s a great thing. I stayed in my own world out there. My pace isn’t super-fast; I’m giving myself the time I need and every swing was confident.”
Beach is competing in his fourth consecutive PGA Professional Championship. He missed the cut in 2016 and 2018, while a T-9 finish in 2017 led to an appearance in the 99th PGA Championship at Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte.
“My only goal here is to try and win,” said Beach. “There are a ton of great players here and it’s a four-day event. I’m happy to get one good round in and give myself a head start. To play back in New York at Bethpage would be a lot of fun, but I’m taking it one day at a time.”
Philo was the longest commuter on the leaderboard. He followed a practice round Friday at Belfair by driving more than 200 miles to conduct a Member-Member event Saturday at Sawgrass Country Club in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, where he is PGA Director of Golf.
“I watched a couple of our members in a shootout with 80 carts around the final green. It was inspirational,” said Philo. “This morning, I got up and walked the dog on the beach. It was a chance to relax. The staff at Belfair has done a great job setting the course up and it really feels like home.”
The PGA Professional Championship, featuring a 312-member field and a $650,000 purse, is broadcast live by Golf Channel.
First round scores for New England PGA contestants: Rich Berberian (E), Brendan Ray (E), Jeff Martin (72), Jason Caron (73) Kirk Hanefeld (73), Shawn Warren (74), David Bennett (74), Liam Hausman (74), Robert Bruso (76), Jeff Seavey (76), Adam Kolloff (79), Chip Johnson (80), Troy Pre (81) and Rick Karbowski (82). The projected cut is 2-over.