Since turning 55 last summer, Miles McConnell has enjoyed quite a resurgence. Not that the Canadian-born Florida resident wasn’t an outstanding player before joining the senior amateur ranks, as his four U.S. Amateur and two U.S. Mid-Amateur starts will attest.
But after reaching that milestone last July, McConnell has been the Florida State Golf Association’s Senior Player of the Year as well as its 2022 Senior Match Play champion, finished third in the 2022 British Senior Amateur at Royal Dornoch, and qualified for the 2022 U.S. Senior Open.
Now, he would like to add the U.S. Senior Amateur title to his portfolio. On Saturday, he got off to a good start at The Kittansett Club in Marion, Mass.
McConnell carded a 3-under-par 68 on the 6,638-yard layout in Round 1 of stroke play. That gave him a one-stroke lead over 2019 champion Bob Royak, of Alpharetta, Ga., and Kevin VandenBerg, of Pulaski, N.Y.
Past champions Jeff Wilson (2018), of Fairfield, Calif., and Sean Knapp (2017), of Oakmont, Pa., joined 2019 runner-up Roger Newsom, of Virginia Beach, Va., and two-time semifinalist Rick Cloninger, of Rock Hill, S.C. with 1-under 70s as just seven players bettered par on a day when the scoring average was 77.5.
Two other past champions – Doug Hanzel (2013), of Savannah, Ga., and Chip Lutz (2015), of Reading, Pa. – each posted even-par 71s. Two-time champion Paul Simson (2010 and 2012), bidding to make match play for the 14th time in 15 starts, opened with a 1-over 72. The 71-year-old from Raleigh, N.C., is four match-play victories shy of the all-time mark held by Lewis Oehmig (38).
“It’s obviously a solid start,” said McConnell, who moved to Florida from Toronto when he was 10 and also spent 12 years in Wisconsin. “I kept it going with a couple of nice par saves in the middle of the round. All in all, I’m very happy.”
As is typical of a course on the water – Buzzards Bay in this instance – the wind can blow in a variety of directions. On Saturday, the breeze came out of the northeast and was generally moderate with gusts in the teens, especially in the afternoon.
McConnell, who lost in the Round of 64 in his U.S. Senior Amateur debut a year ago at the Country Club of Detroit and is making his ninth USGA start, handled the conditions with aplomb, making four birdies – all on par 4s – against a lone bogey on the 165-yard eighth.
“There’s no better experience than a USGA event – the way the course is set up, the quality of the course to start with, it’s always fantastic,” said McConnell, a quarterfinalist in the 1987 U.S. Amateur, when he lost to eventual champion Billy Mayfair. Of Kittansett, he said, “It’s my first visit, but I heard some great things. It’s a beautiful course and a beautiful spot of land.”
VandenBerg, playing in the afternoon wave, got going late after shooting a 1-over 36 on the outward nine. He made three birdies over a four-hole stretch from No. 12 to come home in 33.
“I was really struggling the last couple of days, hitting it awful, not staying behind the ball,” said VandenBerg, who like McConnell turned 55 last year and is competing in his second U.S. Senior Amateur. “Today, I just slowed the swing down and tried to keep it in play, and that’s really all I tried to do. Standing on 18 tee, I was saying to myself, ‘2 under! I’m not that good!’... It’s been a tough year, up and down, so I’m really pleased to play well today.”
Royak made five birdies against two bogeys, including a closing two-putt birdie on the 486-yard, par-5 18th hole.
Round 2 of stroke play will take place on Sunday with the low 64 scorers advancing to match play, beginning on Monday. Should a playoff be necessary to determine the final spots in the draw, it would take place on Monday morning at 7:15 EDT, beginning at Hole 16 and continuing to Nos. 17 and 18 as required. Spectators are welcome to attend, and admission is free.
“The first two days, you’re just trying not to make a big number. I’ve found that scores usually turn out higher than you think. You don’t have to go out there and make a million birdies; just go out there and play your game and shoot around par and move on.” – 2019 champion Bob Royak on his philosophy for stroke play
“To continue to be able to play at this level, with the talent that’s here, it gets your juices going. Plus, it’s a great golf course. You know you’ve got to hit good quality shots. To play for a national championship and to come close a couple of times like I have done, you look forward to it. Somebody’s just played a little bit better than I did in the semifinals. I think that those experiences have helped me.” – two-time semifinalist Rick Cloninger after opening with a 1-under 70
“It was a fun day. Fred [Ridley] and I are both former [Florida] Gators. I played two years as a walk-on, which were his junior and senior years. We have a lot of mutual friends and I got to reminisce with Fred about some of our old teammates and catch up on some of them. Jack Larkin [Sr.] played great as well; it couldn’t have been a better pairing out there.” – Chip Lutz (even-par 71) on his pairing with the 1975 U.S. Amateur champion (Ridley) and 1979 U.S. Junior Amateur champion (Larkin)
“I felt like I was over the edge of a skyscraper, just hanging on with my fingernails. One of the hallmarks of an excellent golf course is that, with a little wind and really challenging pins, par is a great score. The course was set up so spectacularly, and I thought it played harder in the afternoon, having come out here to practice a little in the morning.” – 2017 champion Sean Knapp after shooting 1-under 70
“I three-putted No. 4, [and] I went over to my wife and said, ‘I’m playing nervous. I’ve got to stop this, just go play.’ I just settled in. The goal is just to get to Monday and see what happens.” – Kevin VandenBerg
David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Ron Driscoll, the USGA’s senior manager of editorial content, contributed to this article from The Kittansett Club.