Kevin Grady didn’t know the 18-hole championship record, but he wanted to get to 10 under par. That meant making birdie on the final hole of Kiawah Island Club’s Cassique late Saturday afternoon. Grady stuffed his approach to 6 feet, converted the putt and he and partner Andrew Sovero completed a 10-under-par round of 61, matching the U.S. Amateur Four-Ball mark established last year by two sides.
It also gave the Catonsville, Md., residents a one-shot lead after the first round of the 2023 championship. They were one stroke ahead of Garrett Rank, of Canada, and Joseph Deraney, of Belden, Miss., a pair of past U.S. Mid-Amateur runners-up whose partnership was four years in the making. They carded a 9-under 62 on Kiawah Island Club’s River Course, the stroke-play, co-host. Jeffrey Forster and Teddy Vigna, a pair of teenagers from Santa Barbara, Calif., who are the fourth-youngest side in the field, also carded a 62 at Cassique.
Scoring conditions were ideal for the first round of stroke play with temperatures in the 70s and a light southerly breeze. Forty-eight of the 128 sides posted 67 (4 under) or better.
“It was awesome,” said Grady, 35, a reinstated amateur (2015) who played collegiately at the University of South Carolina-Aiken. “We were stress-free [the entire round]. I had to make like a 4- or 5-foot on No. 6 for par and that was the only one we even thought about all day. It was perfect four-ball golf.”
Sovero, 28, is no stranger to highly-competitive athletics, although his exploits first came in the pool. A decorated high school swimmer, he competed at the University of Arizona, winning a Pac-12 Conference title in 2016 in the 200-yard medley relay and earning an invitation to the 2016 Summer Olympic Swimming Trials in the 100-meter breaststroke.
Since graduation, he’s transitioned to golf, meeting his partner at Rolling Road Golf Club in Catonsville. They first qualified for the 2020 U.S. Amateur Four-Ball only to have COVID-19 cancel the event. They made it again last year but missed the cut for match play.
Rank and Deraney also had their first Four-Ball as a team canceled by COVID-19. The two had become friends via the Canadian Mid-Amateur, an event Deraney, 39, won in consecutive years (2018-19). With both players inside the top 400 of the World Amateur Golf Ranking®, it was a natural for them to pair up, although Rank, the 2012 U.S. Mid-Amateur runner-up, advanced to the semifinals of this event in 2016 at Winged Foot with Patrick Christovich. Rank, a full-time National Hockey League referee, qualified for the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills in 2018 and a year later became the first mid-amateur in 22 years to win the prestigious Western Amateur.
But his NHL assignments prevented him from playing with Deraney in 2021 and 2022.
In fact, Deraney, a stay-at-home father of three kids ages 9, 7 and 5, was on-site in Birmingham last year when he got word that Rank had been last-minute replacement for a second-round Stanley Cup Playoff game.
“I got my name on the [players’] scroll,” the 2019 U.S. Mid-Am runner-up said, laughing. “I knew the situation. [Belden] was just two hours away. My kids were happy to have me back. I wanted a two-person team a chance to qualify for match play. Without him [there], it was the right thing to do.”
With no conflicts in 2023, the two made it to the championship proper. Playing in his first competition of the season – he made it through pre-qualifying for the Canadian Open this past week and shot 80 in a U.S. Open local qualifier without a practice round – Rank surprised even himself with his performance. He birdied the first two holes, and following the side’s lone bogey of the day, he added a third on No. 4.
Deraney got it going on the second nine with birdies on 10, 13, 16 and 17, the last being a 35-footer.
“I really like how I felt out there today,” said Rank, who worked 73 regular-season games and six more in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. “For the first competitive round in like six months, I thought I was going to be a little uptight or nervous.”
Ex-Dallas Cowboys quarterback and current CBS lead NFL analyst Tony Romo, and his partner, 6-foot-10 University of Texas freshman Tommy Morrison, fresh from a tie for eighth in the NCAA Bath (Mich.) Regional, opened with a 67.
“I drove the ball great all day, but we just didn’t make any putts,” said Romo, who is competing in his first USGA championship. “It was one of those days where we know we left some out there. But it also gives us encouragement moving forward because we’re in a good spot to have a low one tomorrow.”
Each of the 128 sides will switch venues on Sunday for the final round of stroke play. From there, the low 32 scorers will advance to match play, beginning on Monday. Should a playoff be necessary to determine the final spots in the match-play draw, it would take place Monday morning at Cassique. Two more match-play rounds are scheduled for Tuesday, with the semifinals and 18-hole championship match set for Wednesday.
“Tomorrow, we’ll play the same we did today. Two good swings, two in play and two looks on the green. That’s our philosophy all day, every day.” – Kevin Grady on the strategy he and partner Andrew Sovero will have on the River Course.
“You get freed up a little more [in this format],” said Tilley, a past U.S. Mid-Amateur medalist (2017). “We’re both great ball strikers so we had a lot of looks today. Pat hit a bunch of great putts that barely missed, so it’s nice to have a par in the hole and be more aggressive with my putts.” – Brad Tilley after making nine birdies in his side’s 63
“Torey [Edwards] played awesome today. Seven birdies on his own ball. I was the par king and the couple of holes he struggled with I was able to pick us up. Then I poured one in on No. 17 [on the course’s toughest hole from 15 feet] for my only birdie so that helped.” – Bret Parker after a 63 with partner Torey Edwards
“There’s no question, this is a course where you needed to get a practice round in. Lots of blind shots and knowledge. Having played River Course [on Friday], we’ll be prepared and ready to go [on Sunday]. Having Tommy’s knowledge of [Cassique] was huge. It would have been brutal if I was playing in an individual tournament.” – Tony Romo after playing Cassique for first time
“I was a little nervous, yeah. I thought about it last night and thought ‘I want to be the one to hit the first shot of the championship’ and I hit a good one. Guess I was able to handle the nerves.” – Matthew Doyle, of Summerville, S.C., on taking the opening shot of the championship at Cassique
“This place is special, and I am very much looking forward to playing Cassique, hopefully multiple times.” – 2022 semifinalist Dan Walters after he and partner, Evan Beck, posted a 6-under 65 on the River Course
“Wells [Williams] made all of our birdies (2) on the front nine, so I was a little bit of a gimp leg. He was captain on the front nine and then I helped him out a little on the back and we shot a better score.” – Carter Loflin after shooting 64 with partner Wells Williams, semifinalists from 2022
David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at email@example.com. Jonathan Coe, senior manager, championship communications, contributed.