If not for a first-round 81 in last year’s inaugural U.S. Adaptive Open Championship, Conor Stone might have challenged for the overall men’s title, which was eventually won by Simon Lee in a playoff over Felix Normann. Stone won’t have to concern himself with falling behind after Round 1 this year, as the 28-year-old from the Republic of Ireland fired a 5-under-par 67 on Monday at Pinehurst Resort’s Course No. 6 to grab a one-stroke lead in the 2nd U.S. Adaptive Open.
Ryanne Jackson, of St. Petersburg, Fla., had also hoped to get off to a better start last year in her quest to win the women’s title. The 25-year-old, who was diagnosed with a form of muscular dystrophy as a college freshman, recorded a first-round 76 that gives her a four-stroke advantage over Amanda Cunha (vision impairment) of Kaneohe, Hawaii.
Defending women’s champion Kim Moore sits five strokes off Jackson’s lead. Moore, who has a leg impairment, shot an 81 that is tied with Natasha Stasiuk of Canada for third place.
“I was just a little nervous,” said Moore. “It’s a lot of pressure on you coming in here trying to repeat. Hopefully we can do well tomorrow and the next day.”
Stone, who has an arm impairment, started off about as strong as possible on the par-5 first hole, reaching the green in two and converting a 20-foot putt for eagle. He turned in 2-under-par 34, then added three more birdies on the back nine. Stone’s 67 is the lowest score so far in championship history, bettering the 68 shot in the final round last year by Chad Pfeifer. The inaugural championship was also played on Pinehurst No. 6.
“To be honest, it was a complete shock,” said Stone, who has been battling back pain and considered withdrawing from the championship two weeks ago. “I need to give a shoutout to my physiotherapist, Jerry McDonough, for fixing my back. I’m happy to be able to hit a golf ball well again. I’ve always been able to shoot these scores, but I haven’t done it in a long time, so it’s nice to do it on a big stage like this.”
Stone knows he will have to keep playing well to hoist a trophy in this 54-hole championship. Close on his heels are players with ample championship experience, including defending champion Lee. The 26-year-old from the Republic of Korea, who has autism, shot a 4-under 68, marked by five birdies and only one bogey.
Two strokes farther back at 2-under 70 are first-time Adaptive Open competitor Anton Glass, 27, of Fort Myers, Fla., and Kipp Popert of England. Popert shot a blistering 5-under 31 on his first nine holes before cooling off a bit on his second nine. The 25-year-old Englishman placed second in the G4D Open, the inaugural championship for players with disabilities conducted by The R&A, just two months ago.
“Coming into the back nine I was feeling good, but had two poor holes,” said Popert. “Still really pleased with how I just kept going and didn’t give up. I’m in contention, so that’s all I can ask for. You can’t win it on Day 1.”
Other players likely feeling that same sense of being in contention are a trio at even-par 72: Mike Browne (leg impairment), of England; Austin Brown (leg impairment), of Richland, Wash.; and Jack Bonifant (neurological impairment) of Kensington, Md.
On the women’s side, Chris Oviatt (neurological impairment) of Milwaukie, Ore., and Abigail Davis (arm impairment) of Houston, Texas, sit in a tie for fifth place at 10-over 82. Eli Villanueva, a U.S. Army veteran from nearby Fayetteville, N.C., who plays with an arm impairment, had the honor of hitting the first tee shot of the championship on Hole 1.
Round 2 will take place on Tuesday, with tee times again beginning at 8 a.m. EDT and continuing through 10:12 a.m. There is no cut, so all players will play the final round on Wednesday. Tune into Golf Today (1-3 p.m. EDT) and Golf Central (5-6 p.m. EDT) on Golf Channel for highlights and live look-ins, along with interviews and analysis from reporter Andy Stevenson.
Bailey Bish, a 23-year-old from Tucson, Ariz., who is making her championship debut, birdied her third hole and was leading the women’s division until she hit a rough patch on her second nine. Bish, who has dystonia, a neurological disorder that causes involuntary muscle contractions, only recently became physically able to play more than nine holes at a time.
Of the 31 players in the field making their first appearance in the U.S. Adaptive Open, Anton Glass leads the men with his 2-under 70 and Chris Oviatt and Abigail Davis lead the women, both at 10-over 82.
The youngest player in the field is 16-year-old Russell Aide of Canada, who at 6-foot-6 towers over many of his fellow competitors. The lanky teenager with the booming drives and soft touch around the greens carded a 6-over 78 and proclaimed the day a success. “My playing partners played from different tees, and all different abilities, and they all got around the golf course really well. It was really inspiring.”
The field played through light rain showers that persisted throughout the morning. The skies turned brighter by early afternoon, and the forecast for Tuesday and Wednesday calls for more sunshine and typical summertime highs in the lower 90s.
“I've had a couple people that were here last year already come up and give me hugs and ask how I’m doing, and just give congratulations. It’s been a pretty warm welcome.” – Kim Moore (leg impairment), 42, Portage, Mich.; first-round 80
“It’s unreal. As soon as we got here, everyone felt welcomed, and it’s done properly. Very chuffed that I got in this year, so yeah, happy.” – Mike Browne (leg impairment), 45, of England; first-round 72
“I was satisfied with my result, but I had a lot of missed shots at times. For the next two rounds, I’m not going to specifically change anything, but I’m just going to play more freely.” – Simon Lee (intellectual impairment), 26, of Republic of Korea; first-round 68
“We saw the tee sheets last night with my family, and I was like, hey, I get to hit the first tee shot on No. 1 on the first day. I was a little nervous, I can’t lie. I thought it was going to be OK, but when I got to the tee box, it was like, we’ve got to hit a good one here. I hit a decent one.” – Eli Villanueva (arm impairment), 56, Fayetteville, N.C.; first-round 81