Sampson Zheng is making a splash in another USGA championship. The rising senior at the University of California-Berkeley, who captured the U.S. Amateur Four-Ball title in late May with Cal teammate and fellow senior Aaron Du, opened stroke play of the 123rd U.S. Amateur Championship on Monday with a 6-under-par 66 at Colorado Golf Club, the stroke-play co-host to Cherry Hills Country Club.
Zheng missed an 8-foot birdie putt on the final hole at Colorado Golf Club (CGC) that would have tied the competitive course record, which is owned by David Frost, who shot 7-under 65 in the third round of the 2010 Senior PGA Championship. Zheng, 22, of the People’s Republic of China, played a bogey-free round with three birdies on each side of the CGC layout, a Bill Coore/Ben Crenshaw design in Parker, Colo., about 17 miles away from Cherry Hills. The William Flynn-designed Cherry Hills, in suburban Denver, is hosting its third U.S. Amateur, to go along with three U.S. Opens among 10 USGA championships overall.
“The course has gotten firmer and firmer the past few days,” said Zheng, who is No. 49 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking® (WAGR®) and turned heads at the U.S. Amateur Four-Ball by making eight consecutive birdies on his own ball during stroke play. “The fairways are fairly generous, but when you miss them, you have only a couple yards of rough and then fescue. I had a few drivers run through the fairway, but other than that I did pretty well keeping it in play.”
Zheng leads a pair of players at 5-under 67: Ben James, of Milford, Conn., and Ryggs Johnston, of Libby, Mont., both of whom also played at CGC on Monday. Johnston, 23, a fifth-year senior at Arizona State, got to 6 under on his opening nine – the back nine at CGC – then slipped with a trio of bogeys after the turn. He birdied twice more and sealed his 67 with a 12-foot par putt on the 471-yard, par-4 ninth hole.
Ben Lorenz of the University of Oklahoma led the local contingent with a 4-under at Colorado Golf Club and was tied for fourth. Jonas Baumgartner of Oklahoma State is tied for 45th after shooting even par at CGC. Andrew Goodman of OU shot 2-over on Cherry Hills as did Leo Oyo of OSU. Ryder Cowan of OU was tied for 205th with teammate Stephen Campbell Jr. at 6-over while Luke Morgan of Guthrie shot 12-over.
James, 19, a rising sophomore at the University of Virginia, is No. 6 in the WAGR. The winner of the Phil Mickelson Award as the nation’s top college freshman, James made his lone bogey on the par-5 16th at CGC, but responded with three consecutive birdies.
“I wasn’t hitting it too well off the start,” said James. “I had my wedge game really dialed in, which is always a big help when you are kind of spraying it.”
Colorado native Connor Jones, who had the honor of hitting the first tee shot off No. 1 at CGC on Monday morning, led a trio of players at 4 under. Jones, 21, of Denver, a fifth-year senior at Colorado State in Fort Collins, overcame a double-bogey 5 on the par-3 11th and a bogey on the par-3 17th by making seven birdies. He was joined at 4 under by Ben Lorenz, 21, of Peoria, Ariz., a rising senior at the University of Oklahoma; and Bo Andrews, 33, of Raleigh, N.C., an assistant coach at University of Tennessee; both of whom also played at CGC.
The top 64 after second rounds Tuesday will advance to match play at Cherry Hills.