A cloudless sky, a light breeze and greens far more aesthetically pleasing than Pinehurst’s No. 2 course were all part of the makings of a beautiful first day of the 2014 Watson Challenge.
As each player stepped up to tee off Friday, the announcer said their name, their city and — if they had won the tournament before — the year.
“2008, 2009, 2010, 2011,” the announcer said to an array of laughter. “And 2013 champion,” he added.
The tournament’s namesake has won the title “The Best Golfer in the greater Kansas City golf community” five times since its creation in 2007. Before the tournament, Watson said he was waiting for one of the younger players to beat “an old has-been like (himself).”
That’s a challenge that’s been accepted early on by 17-year-old Preston Fleenor.
Fleenor, a Pembroke Hill senior-to-be from Mission Hills, shot a 5-under par 67 and shared the lead with Sean Dougherty, the head golf professional at Milburn Golf and Country Club.
Fleenor was even par through six, but eagled the par-4 seventh.
“I remember about halfway through I thought it was hooking a little, it looked like it was hooking too much,” Fleenor said. “I kind of said ‘sit, sit’ and then it just disappeared and it took me a second to realize that it actually went in the hole and it just went straight in; it just dunked in.”
He followed up with another par and three straight birdies.
Fleenor is one of just two junior amateurs playing in the tournament. The other is 15-year-old Eric Pahls, a Piper junior-to-be at who finished the first round in 45th place with a 9-over 81.
Co-leader Dougherty said he was not surprised by Fleenor’s score on Friday. Dougherty has seen him play at Milburn.
“He’s a very talented player (and) harder worker,” Dougherty said. “It was good to watch. I saw him get animated out there which is something I normally never see, he’s usually a very stoic individual so the fact that he’s having a good time out there, he and his dad, it was fun to watch.”
Dougherty remains in a battle of his own. In seven years, he’s been the runner-up six times but has never beat Watson.
“I think I’d have to beat him for it to actually be a rivalry,” Dougherty said. “I just feel like I’m just chasing him all the time.”
Friday was Dougherty’s second-best round in a Watson Challenge. His best was in 2007, when he shot a 66 in the first round at Hallbrook Country Club. He shot a 71 and a 77 in the next two rounds.
He nearly finished on top in the first round. He was 6-under after No. 16 but his first shot on No. 17 hit a tree.
“I just made a bad tee shot, I pulled it,” Dougherty said.
Still, he finished the hole with a bogey, followed by par on No. 18.
Watson shot a 2-under 70 and finished the day in fifth place.
“I played pretty well,” Watson said. “I missed a couple of (short putts) on the greens, hit a couple of some wayward shots but I played very well and the golf course was soft and receptive and with no wind, it was kind of there for the taking today.”
Missouri golfer Ryan Zech, who was paired with Dougherty and Watson, finished the first round in a three-way tie for 21st with a 2-over-par 74.
PGA Tour member and former Kansas State golfer Robert Streb shot 1-over in his Watson Challenge debut. He ended the day in a 6-way tie for 15th. Streb bogeyed the par-4 second and followed up with seven straight shots for par before making birdie on No. 10.