Once the flag was raised, the band had played and the celebration at Monday’s opening ceremony had concluded, it was time for the field of 96 competitors in this Inaugural U.S. Adaptive Open to get to the business at hand: competing for the right to call themselves a USGA champion. No one did that better on Course No. 6 at Pinehurst Resort than Chad Pfeifer, of Caldwell, Idaho, and Kim Moore, of Portage, Mich., who lead the men’s and women’s divisions, respectively, of this newest USGA championship.
Pfeifer, 40, is no stranger to competition. Since losing his left leg in 2007 in an explosion while serving for the U.S. Army in Iraq, he has become a mainstay on the adaptive golf circuit, winning multiple amputee titles. Despite a closing bogey on the par-4 18th hole, Pfeifer assessed his round, which included two birdies and an eagle, as mostly positive.
“I started slow but I was steady,” he said. “Got a couple birdies on the back nine and then the eagle [on the par-5 15th hole] was big. Had 200 yards in and hit a nice little 5-iron to like 7, 8 feet, and made the putt. That was nice.”
Moore, 41, was born without a right foot and has a club left foot, along with spina bifida. She overcame those challenges to become a standout golfer at the University of Indianapolis and now works as a PGA professional and the head women’s golf coach at Western Michigan University. She reminds her team about the lessons that come from tournament experience, and she took those to heart today.
“I always tell my players that bogeys don't kill you,” Moore said. “My round was pretty ho-hum – a lot of pars, not a lot of birdies, nothing higher than a bogey. It’s just trying to learn from your mistakes and hopefully put together another solid round [Tuesday].”
One stroke behind Pfeifer in the men’s division is Simon Lee, of the Republic of Korea. The 25-year-old professional, who has autism, was 5 under par at one point during his round but a double bogey on the par-5 sixth hole (his 15th of the day) brought him back to the pack with a 1-under 71.
“Today was a roller coaster,” said Lee. “I had two eagles [on Holes 15 and 1] but a lot of mistakes. Hopefully I will make tomorrow [better] and try to hit it well.”
In third place behind Pfeifer and Lee is Jack Bonifant (neurological impairment), of Kensington, Md., who shot an even-par 72. Rounding out the top five are Chris Biggins (neurological impairment), of Birmingham, Ala., and Kipp Popert (neurological impairment), of England, both of whom shot 2-over 74.
On the women’s side, Moore is four strokes clear of Ryanne Jackson (neurological impairment), of St. Petersburg, Fla., who shot 80. Grace Anne Braxton (intellectual impairment), of Fredericksburg, Va., who had the honor of hitting the first tee shot of the championship on Hole 1, is in third place with an 85.
Round 2 will take place on Tuesday, with tee times again beginning at 8 a.m. and continuing through 10:12 a.m. There is no cut, so all players will play the final round on Wednesday.
Kurtis Barkley, of Canada, had a roller-coaster start to his round en route to making a bit of history. Beginning play on the par-4 10th hole, Barkley, who is of short stature, made a double-bogey 6. He followed it up with the first eagle in U.S. Adaptive Open history on the par-5 11th. “I had a mindset. Once the hole is over, I don't really dwell on it. I just step up to the next tee and it's a whole new hole.”
Few players had as long a journey and yet as short a commute to this championship as Eli Villanueva. He was born in the Philippines, emigrated to Hawaii when he was 13 and joined the military after high school. He spent much of his 20-plus-year career stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C. – less than an hour from Pinehurst – and continues to call the area home. Villanueva, who was left-handed, broke the radial head of his left arm and later took up golf. “I learned to play golf with the impairment,” he said. “This is all I know.” He shot a 6-over 78, good for tie for 16th.
Five-time PGA Tour winner Ken Green did not card a birdie in his round of 5-over 77, but was still upbeat. “I said to myself, if I shot 75 here, it would be a good round, so I can't really complain.” The 63-year-old, who played in 13 U.S. Opens during his career, had his right leg amputated following an RV accident in 2009.
Typical for summertime in North Carolina, temperatures were in the low 90s with heat indexes approaching 100. However, none of the storms that dotted the area during Saturday’s practice round and dropped more than 1.5 inches of rain were repeated on Monday.
“It was intense. It was a little different kind of pressure than when I was good because now you're not good but your brain still thinks like you are, so you really have to think your way around the course a lot more than when you could just swing and go.” – Ken Green (leg impairment), 63, West Palm Beach, Fla.
“I can't even explain how grateful I am about this all happening. I have only been in the adaptive community for about a year now but for some of these people who have been waiting for this tournament for such a long time, I'm sure it means the world to them. I love that the USGA is a part of this community now.” – Amanda Cunha (vision impairment), 18, of Kaneohe, Hawaii
“This is amazing. The guy I played with today, he had one arm and he hit the ball like 260. He was a fantastic golfer and everyone here, such great people. It’s fantastic.” – Mario Dino (neurological impairment), 19, of Denver, Colo.
“It's an honor. I can't sum it up any other way. This is a historical event. Just to be a part of it, I feel like a winner already. There's still the competitive spirit… I didn't quite have my best out there today, but I feel like tomorrow is a new day.” – Jonathan Synder (arm impairment), 40, Charlotte, N.C.