GOLF: Locals take a swing at the PGA

Craig O'Neil, from Gilroy, putts on the green on the fifth hole at San Juan Oaks Golf Club during the 2012 pre-qualifier for the Frys.Com Open.

More than 80 local golfers took to the links Wednesday, in the first step to earning a spot in the 2012 Open, which kicks off next week.

The local golfers, which included San Benito High junior Ryan Han and two-time Open competitor Erick Justesen, had a rough time as a strong wind whipped through the course in the early afternoon.

Only two local golfers – Morgan Hill’s Justesen and Brian Thibault – are expected to advance to the second stage of qualifying. To advance, golfers must finish in the top 50 among this week’s pre-qualifiers. The final pre-qualifier starts Friday at Castlewood Country Club in Pleasanton.

The top golfers will then need to finish in the top 4 at the qualifying stage Monday in Seaside to advance to the Open at CordeValle in San Martin.

Justesen and Thibault just made the cut Wednesday. Justesen was one of the last to qualify, carding a 1-over 73 to beat the cutoff by one stroke. Thibault carded an even-par 72 to remain safe.

Scores remained high for most of the field, as the wind played tricks with the ball. Only 14 golfers, including Jay Myers’ low of 67, scored below par on the day.

For Justesen, the wind made his mistakes more glaring, he said.

“I started out pretty good but then the wind picked up,” Justesen said. “Then I went through a little bit of a struggle with the golf swing and that showed in the wind. I tried to swing through but that was against a 50-plus wind. It’s just tough. It really magnifies if you miss a little bit. If your not flushing it, the spin on the golf ball gets hit so bad.”

Justesen, who began on the back-9, started the day well, hitting four birdies in the first seven holes. But it was the heavy-wind of front-9 where Justesen briefly lost his stroke. He hit four bogeys in the nine holes to nullify his hot start.

“You get some shots where the wind is just howling like this and it’s just tough,” he said. “A 500-yard par 5 and you rope a drive and it goes only 200 yards. It’s really tough but everyone has to deal with it.”

Thibault played better in the front-9, stroking birdies on the first and second holes, but he also hit a wall in the final five holes, hitting four bogeys.

Thibault kept his score low, though, with a eagle on the 11th hole.

San Benito High junior Ryan Han also played well at times in an attempt for a spot in a PGA Tour event. Han, though, struggled on the front-9 with three bogeys and one double bogey. He did stroke three birdies to finish with a 4-over 76.

“It was pretty rough,” he said. “I only managed to make a couple of birdies and with this wind out here it’s hard to save par every time. So I mean, I kind of struggled with it throughout the day.”

Han started the day strongly, birdying the 11th hole, thanks to a strong recovery shot. Han hit his tee shot in a small patch of dirt to the right side of the fairway. On his next shot, Han perfectly placed the ball on the front of the green, 10 feet from the hole. Two putts later, Han had a birdie.

“Yeah, at the beginning I was playing pretty well,” he said. “It wasn’t too bad.”

Once the wind picked up, things started to get more difficult for Han.

“It (the wind) made a big influence,” Han said. “A couple of holes I was in-between clubs and ended up at the wrong distance. I pretty much struggled through it. You can’t really make birdies when its’ like this. You have to grind out pars.”

Hollister golfer Timothy Trefts carded an 80. Trefts struggled in the back-9, finishing with six birdies and one double bogey. He played a clean front-9 with nine pars.

Gilroy resident Craig O’Neil, 32, hovered around the cutline through his first nine holes, making the turn at 1-over-par – including three birdies and four bogeys.

“The front side, which was the back nine (holes) today, was perfect,” O’Neil said. “Get to that front nine at the turn and the condition of the greens, the tees changed.”

O’Neil, who was one of the longest hitters off the tee in the field, said making putts became a tiresome chore.

“I was playing pretty decently. I was striking beautifully. But then the greens,” said O’Neil, who plays events on the Pepsi Tour. “I was placing the ball close to the hole, but its hard to make putts when the ball is hopping around.”

The local was plus-3 heading into the Par 5 ninth – his final hole. But a wayward second shot found the hazard and O’Neil settled for a triple bogey and finished with a 6-over, 78.

Frustrated some by the outcome, O’Neil kept his eyes on the ultimate prize.

“It’s been a dream of mine since I was little to play on the PGA (Tour),” he said, adding that his quest is far from over. “I’m just starting to get into my prime, basically. I’ve been working so hard physically, just trying to get into shape. And I feel like I’m in the best shape I’ve ever been in. I feel like I’m hitting the ball more solidly than I ever have.”

Gilroy residents Jordan Miller and John Guenther also missed the cut. Miller carded an 80 and Guenther finished with a score of 84.

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