Rob Wilkin blistered Hallbrook Country Club’s pristine 6,908-yard golf course Friday, grabbing a 4-stroke lead during the opening round of the 2016 Watson Challenge.
Wilkin, who is the head professional at Heritage Park Golf Course in Olathe and has some experience playing on the PGA Tour as well as the PGa Tour Champions, birdied two of the final three holes and finished with a 5-under par 67.
Only three other golfers — including the event’s namesake, World Golf Hall of Famer and eight-time major champion Tom Watson — finished below par during the first round.
“I came off the Senior PGA (Championship) last week, where I just missed the cut, but I’m playing pretty good and those greens are a similar speed to these,” said Wilkin, one of five players who have competed in all 10 years of The Watson Challenge. “I made a lot of putts. I made a couple 20-footers for par that helped my round and I made a bomb for eagle on (No.) 12 that set up the round.”
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Defending champion Chase Hanna, a rising senior for the Kansas golf team and the only amateur winner in Watson Challenge history, and Josh Weems, a 2011 KU graduate who turned pro last week, joined Watson at 1-under.
“I felt a little calmer after winning last year, knowing I didn’t necessarily have to play my ‘A’ game to be in contention,” said Hanna, who helped the Jayhawks qualify for an NCAA regional for the first time since 2007. “I played OK today. I didn’t think I played spectacular by any means, but I kept myself right in the tournament.”
Hanna, a 2013 Shawnee Mission East graduate, reached 4-under through eight holes, including at eagle at No. 4, but he bogeyed four of the next eight holes before closing with a birdie on the finishing hole.
Meanwhile, Weems, a 2007 SM Northwest grad, strung together birdies at Nos. 10, 11 and 12 and finished with a birdie at No. 18 during a round that featured six birdies and five bogeys.
“I played pretty consistently throughout the round and didn’t have many bad swings,” said Weems, who quit his job at Cerner to play in Web.com Tour qualifiers and regional pro tour events as he chases his PGA dream. “When I did miss, they were where I wanted them to be.”
Watson was steady like a freight train, posting 13 pars with three birdies — a tally that might have been higher with a more cooperative putter — on what he called “about the toughest course here in the Kansas City area.”
“It played easy for Hallbrook, because there was no wind,” Watson said.
Ultimately, the day belonged to Wilkin, who made the turn at 2-under and was bogey-free until No. 11. He played the final seven holes 4-under par to finish with a commanding first-round lead.
“I can’t dream about winning yet,” Wilkin said. “I’ve played against Mr. Watson 10 times now in this tournament and in a few majors, but I’ve never beat him. I’m oh-fer against Tom, so I’m not going to dream anything yet and just try to play.”
The Watson Challenge, which benefits The First Tee of Greater Kansas City, has been played annually since 2007.
“The whole point of this thing is to have the best players in the greater Kansas City area come in here and let’s see who’s the best this week,” Watson said. “I love it every year.”
The inaugural event, which Blake Graham won in a playoff against Watson and Sean Dougherty, was played at Hallbrook and this year marks the first time it has returned.
“The way that Hallbrook embraced it that very first year, it got the Watson Challenge off to a flying start with the enthusiasm and the amount of work that people put into it,” Watson said.
It’s turned into the signature golf event in Kansas City during the decade since. The three-round event continues Saturday and concludes Sunday at Hallbrook.
The second round begins at 7:30 a.m. Saturday, but the final threesome — Wilkin, Watson and Hanna — are scheduled to tee off at 10 a.m.
Weems is in the penultimate group at 9:50 a.m. paired with recent Park Hill South graduate Tanner Owen and recent Central Missouri graduate Travis Mays, who were among four players to shoot even-par.
Tickets for the event are $25 for a pass good for the entire tournamrent, but anyone 18 years old or younger is free.