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FRIDAY, JULY 6, 2007
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Brent Paul, 17, of Midland, Ga., is in a four-way tie for the Spirit of America lead after firing an opening-round 67.
Daily photo by Michael Wetzel
Brent Paul, 17, of Midland, Ga., is in a four-way tie for the Spirit of America lead after firing an opening-round 67.

Crowded leaderboard
Four tied for lead after first day of Spirit of America tournament

By Michael Wetzel
mwetzel@decaturdaily.com · 340-2462

Two years ago, Chris Wells shot a four-day total of 11 under at the Spirit of America golf tournament and discovered this much: No one remembers who finished second.

A summer school conflict kept him out of the Spirit last year, but he’s back for the 40th annual Daikin America Spirit of America at Burningtree Country Club, and he’s back in a big way.

Wells, who finished second by one stroke two years ago, and three others shot opening-round 67s on the par-71 course to lead the 152-golfer field. Second-round play continues Friday beginning at 7 a.m.

“I didn’t want to miss this event again,” said Wells, who won the Louisiana State Amateur tournament in June. “Obviously, I’m back wanting to win this thing. It’s a great tournament. I love the whole atmosphere and the professionalism of the tournament committee.”

Wells, who plans to go pro after finishing his studies in August, is joined at the top of the leaderboard by Jason Judy of Gibsonville, N.C., Kyle Ellis of Senatobia, Miss., and Brent Paul of Midland, Ga. A stroke back is John Fox of Clinton, Tenn., Jason Cuthbertson of Conway, Ark., and Jordan Payne of West Memphis, Ark.

Wells said he missed a couple of makeable putts Thursday that would have given him a 65.

Paul, meanwhile, said he left four putts on the lip of the cup and should have brought in a 63 or even a 62.

The 17-year-old, who will play golf for Georgia State in the fall, is the leader in the junior standings, also, after the first day.

Starting the day on the back nine and nearly holing his tee shot on No. 13, Paul said he knew his game was on.

“I usually hit my irons well, but I didn’t on the early holes. But when I spun the ball to about one inch away on No. 13, I knew I would shoot under par,” he said. “It’s a nice course, and the greens are a little tricky.

His 33 on the tough front nine had folks in the clubhouse buzzing. His 67 is his best score of the summer so far.

Judy said he had a little extra incentive on his 33 on the front, too.

"I was hitting my irons pretty good out there, and actually, I was thinking about my girlfriend," said the 20-year-old business major at Elon University. "In the past, the front nine hasn't been very kind to me. I might have parred it once before. I was happy as a kid in a candy store the way I was playing out there."

Last year, Judy failed to make the cut after finishing 21st two years ago.

"I could have had a 64 or maybe even a 63," he said. "I'll definitely take the 67. I will have to continue using good course management and accuracy and keep being aggressive and staying positive."

Fox said that he likes his chances after the first day.

"I don't see many people out there making putts," he said. "As long as I don't have too much fun tonight, I hope to continue to hit the ball well. The tournament here is so well run and like a college tournament with all the great Division I players here. It's going to be a fun four days."

A 2004 Decatur High graduate and Burningtree member Matthew Morehead was an early-day leader with his even-par 71, which included a self-imposed one-stroke penalty for touching the ball with his putter during a practice swing. In his third Spirit tournament, the Alabama student is hoping to make his first cut.

"I got into a little bit of a rhythm and was able to make some shots," Morehead said. "I've probably played the course seven times since the changes (three tee box moves on the back nine).

"I like them, and I hope I can continue to strike the ball well."

But Burningtree Country Club president Bryan Askew showed the mostly-college field not to take the other amateurs lightly. With a 7 a.m. tee time, he was the first one off hole No. 1 and was on the early leaderboard with a 72 before hurrying off to work.

"I hit the fairways and greens all day," said Askew, 43. "Obviously, I have somewhat of a home-course advantage playing here. I know where to hit the ball on certain holes. But when you're in competitive rounds and they throw up the ropes, it's a totally different ball game."

Askew has been a regular Spirit competitor for 27 years.

Spirit highlights

  • Leaders:Chris Wells, Jason Judy, Kyle Ellis and Brent Paul each fired a 67 on the first day.

  • Local highlights:Decatur native Matthew Morehead and Athens native Stewart Whitt each shot a 71, while Burningtree president Bryan Askew shot an opening-round 72 before hurrying off to work.

  • Friday’s play:The second round begins at 7 a.m. at Burningtree Country Club from Nos. 1 and 10. Admission to walk the grounds is free.

    - Michael Wetzel

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