Friday's conditions at Palmetto Golf Club weren't ideal for the first round of the Southern Cross. Sporadic rain showers, shifting winds and a substantial chill in the air were atypical of the usual weather for the prestigious high school tournament played at the historic golf course. But the 39th edition of the event is halfway home after the first round of the 36-hole championship was completed in spite of the less-than-ideal conditions.
“It was tough,” Keenan Huskey, the third-ranked junior golfer in South Carolina, said of the conditions after carding a 70, leaving him in a three-way tie for fourth place. “There was a little bit of rain. It definitely wasn't easy.”
Huskey's three strokes behind Blythewood's Bryce Howell, the outright leader after his first-round 67. Howell played in the final group of the day with South Aiken's Ryan Carpenter (78) and Pendleton's Carson Young. Fresh off his win in the Junior Invitational at Sage Valley, Young has picked up where he left off Sunday. He nearly matched Howell's strong performance, shooting 68.
“I haven't touched a club this week,” Young said of a brief sabbatical from the game following his Junior Invitational championship. “I tried to relax and just come out here and have some fun.”
The strategy was effective and helped Young's Pendleton squad take the lead in the team championship. With a combined score of 220, the Southern Cross' defending champions are three strokes clear of their closest competitor. South Aiken, fresh off a win in the Region 5-AAAA championship, is currently in second with a team score of 223, just ahead of Wren (224), Christ School (225) and Blythewood (226).
Howell's 67 was a major factor in Blythewood's presence near the top of the leaderboard. Young said Howell's strong start, including a birdie on the first hole, motivated him to keep pace.
“It was good to see him play well,” he said of Howell, whom he described as a good friend. “I was just trying to keep up with him all day.”
For his part, Howell said he and Young fed off each other to a degree as they posted the lowest scores of the day.
“Maybe a little,” Howell said of the friendly rivalry as a motivating factor. “We're good buddies. I always enjoy playing with the champ,” Howell said with a smile, referring to Young's recent success.
But it's Howell who enters today's final round as the leader. Because Blythewood isn't in the top three teams, Howell and Young won't get the chance to play together today. Howell will play in a group with Beaufort's Josh Fickes (74) and Christ School's Rhyne Jones (78) that's scheduled to tee off at 1 p.m. Young will play Carpenter again, as well as Wren's Chandler Pearson (80) in the final group of the day, slated for a 1:40 p.m. tee time.
For his part, Howell said he won't deviate from his normal approach or do anything out of the ordinary because of his status on top of the leaderboard.
“Just play,” is his strategy following a round he said was a success because he avoided trouble. “I just hope the weather is OK.”
It's possible conditions might be similar to what they were in the first round. The forecast calls for a 50 percent chance of rain with more winds and a possible high temperature of 64 degrees. While it isn't picturesque, players said the rain wasn't all bad Friday. It softened the normally speedy greens and allowed them to be more aggressive.
“The rain helped soften it up,” said Christ School's Jonathan Rector, who's first-round 70 has him tied with Huskey and Riverside's Sawyer Mills. The 16-year-old Rector is making his first appearance in the Southern Cross, and this is also his first tournament at Palmetto. Like so many other players, he was highly complimentary of the historic course.
“It's a great golf course. It has a cool design and is a challenge,” said Rector, who has the patient approach needed to compete at Palmetto. “I'm just taking it one shot at a time and not worrying about the final score.”
Huskey echoed those sentiments, saying, “this is one of my favorite tournaments to come to and one of my favorite golf courses to play on. It's a fun, strategic course. I like the challenge this place brings.”
The shot of the day might have come courtesy of Jake Smith. The Dorman golfer hit a hole-in-one on the seventh hole, a par-3 playing at 158 yards. Smith shot 73, and his team is tied for 19th place, 22 strokes off the lead.
In addition to Young's strong round, defending champion Pendleton got a solid 73 from Austin Langdale. Last year's medalist in the Southern Cross is coming off a second-place tie in the Junior Invitational and battled his way around the course Friday.
The same could be said of many of the South Aiken players. After finishing a stroke behind Pendleton last year, the Thoroughbreds are poised for a run at the Southern Cross title this year. In addition to Carpenter, they got a gritty round from Hayden Ploeger (76) and were led by an impressive 69 by Alex Handy. While Handy's in contention for tournament medalist, he was focused on the team title.
“That would be incredible. It's the tournament we always try to win because its at Palmetto,” said Handy, who had one bogey and four birdies, including three in a row on Nos. 13, 14 and 15. “To have the chance is awesome. We're going to try to go as low as we can.”
Two other area teams competing will have their work cut out for them today if they hope to make a run at the team title. North Augusta has an overall score of 233 and is in 13th place, spurred on by 77s from Christian Manley and Chase Marzullo. Aiken High, the host team, is 29 shots off the lead with 249 that has it tied for 22nd place. Spencer Skiff (80) and Will McCants (83) were the top scorers for the Hornets. They and the other 22 teams chasing Pendleton will have their work cut out.
“A team championship is what we're going for,” Young said. “We want back-to-back titles.”
Noah Feit is the sports editor for the Aiken Standard and has been a professional journalist for more than 14 years after graduating from Syracuse University.
• Bryce Howell, Blythewood 67
• Carson Young, Pendleton 68
• Alex Handy, South Aiken 69
• Keenan Huskey, Greenville 70
• Sawyer Mills, Riverside 70
• Jonathan Rector, Christ School 70
• Pendleton 220
• South Aiken 223
• Wren 224
• Christ School 225
• Blythewood 226
• North Augusta 233
• Aiken 249