GLADSTONE - It took Jim Markell 12 holes, but the Pine Grove member eventually caught fire down the stretch of the first round of the UPGA Championship, Thursday, at the Gladstone Golf Club.
After shooting a 1-over-par 37 on the front, Markell scored eagles on the par-5 13th and par-5 16th, before birding the par-4 18th, to finish five under on the final six holes. His total score of a 4-under par 68 was good enough to be the leader at the end of day one.
"I didn't anticipate playing as well as I did today," Markell said. "Playing with Tom LaVigne, Mark Clements, and Paul Schrader, they're three of the best golfers out here. That kind of pushed me to where I was."
Escanaba's Schrader and Wawonowin's Clements both shot a 1-under-par 71, which left them in a tie for third place with Terrace Bluff's Matt Argall, and Riverside's Bill Langlois.
Before hitting the eagle on No. 13, Markell struggled to consistently give himself birdie opportunities. But that all changed on the back.
Markell hit his driver off the tee on No. 13, and set himself up to take aim at the green on his second shot. Using a 7-iron, he knocked it five feet from the hole, giving himself his first real chance to get an eagle or a birdie.
"I really didn't have any makeable putts," Markell said. "I was leaving everything short, so when I hit it five feet away, on 13, I knew I could two-putt and still make birdie. Then I was lucky and fortunate enough that it went in (for eagle)."
The eagle on No. 16 was similar to the one on No. 13. Another solid drive set himself up for the eagle opportunity. This time, it was his 4-iron that sent the ball five feet from the green, where he would go on to convert for eagle, again.
"My irons were actually pretty good today," Markell said. "This is one of those courses where you have to be in play off the tee. As long as you're in play and I have a short to mid-iron in my hand, I feel like I can compete with the best of them.
"It feels good to play well. It's a four day tournament so you really can't think too much about the next three rounds. Just kind of soak it in for today and try to do the same thing tomorrow."
Despite having the lead, Markell has little breathing room. Three players sit one stroke back, including Gladstone's Joe Quinn, who fired a 3-under 69.
"I'm very happy," Quinn said. "It was a solid round. A little better than I expected. I was hoping to be somewhere around par.
"With my tee shots, I was in play all but one hole. Other than that, I played pretty solid off the tee and never really got in trouble. The one hole I got in trouble on off the tee, I got a double bogey."
Larry Bratonia of the Irish Oaks also sits in second with a 3-under 69, as well as Marquette's Chad Wester who birdied the par-4 12th and eagled the par-5 13th to put himself at the top of the leaderboard.
"I've been playing really good coming in here, lately," Wester said. "My game has come around this summer. I have high expectations, but I just gotta stay patient. Guys are going to shoot low, so you just have to hang around and see what happens on Sunday."
Wester, who was riding the momentum after birding No. 12, put his drive 148 yards away on No. 13. With a chance to give himself an eagle opportunity, Wester took his time and seemed ready to approach the ball, but decided at the last second to switch from the 9-iron that was in his hand, to an 8-iron.
Good thing he changed his mind.
Wester landed the ball 10 feet from the hole and went on to convert the eagle putt.
"There was a little bit of a wind coming," Wester said of his second shot on No. 13. "I knew that pin was low and short, and there was a backboard that you could bring the ball back off of, and it just worked out great."
Last year's champion, Escanaba's Scott Lancour, was doomed by a rough stretch where he found the water and double bogeyed the par-4 ninth, bogeyed the par-4 10th and the par-3 11th. Lancour would finish the round by shooting a 3-over 75. He sits in a four-way tie for seventh, along with the Highland's Mark Ray.
"I had a bad stretch of about four or five holes," Lancour said. "I hit the ball better than thought I would. Hit it good, putted good, but I just couldn't score. I had a couple bad shots that got me in trouble."
In spite of the bad stretch, the defending champion remains optimistic going forward, and doesn't seem deterred by the rocky portion of his round. With his experience of already winning this event, he knows what it will take to turn things around.
"It's four days, and one day is nothing," Lancour said. "Still got three days left of it, so I'll turn it around. I'll be fine."
Gladstone's Gary Greis and Marquette's Dan Vlitala both shot even-par at 72, tying them for the fourth best score overall, rounding out the top 10 scores on the day.