Vilips leaps to US Junior lead

Karl Vilips
Karl Vilips taps in for birdie on the last on Baltusrol's Upper Course after a spectacular approach to close his round. Picture: USGA

Australian Karl Vilips has one foot in the match play phase of the US Junior Amateur after sharing today’s lowest round at Baltusrol.

Vilips, who lived in Melbourne before relocating to Florida for school and golf, carded a five-under-par 66 to share the first-round lead with American Kelly Chinn after both played on the Upper Course of the famous New Jersey complex.

Akshay Bhatia, another American, fired a 66 on the Lower Course, host of the 2016 US PGA Championship that played to a par 70, leaving him one shot adrift of the leaders, who will switch courses for tomorrow’s second qualifying round. The top 64 after two rounds of stroke play advance to the knockout match play phase.

The two other Aussies in the field, Queensland duo Jed Morgan (75 to be T74) and Terry Yoon (77 to be T112) also began their campaigns on the Upper Course, so will likely need to find something around even-par 70 on the Lower Course tomorrow to have hopes of advancing.

But all eyes fell on Vilips, the No.3 ranked player on the AJGA rankings heading into the tournament. The 16-year-old had been briefly No.1 in mid-June so was naturally regarded as a strong chance for this event, the most significant in world junior golf.

Vilips had been nursing a back injury that forced him to miss a practice round at the weekend, but showed no signs of discomfort once he settled down.

“I have been taking care of my back. I took the day off the first practice round (so) it was the first time I’ve seen that golf course,” Vilips said.

“I played the way I have the last couple of weeks, just finally put some putts together. Knowing that my back is not 100%, I feel like my swing is a little bit more in control, not as loose (and) I’m hitting a lot more fairways because of that.

“It could be a benefit, but I’m going to continue to rest it and see how it goes.”

Vilips began with an errant drive left off the first tee, but made a stellar up-and-down to salvage par and give himself a positive feel as the round progressed.

“I think it was the key. That was big momentum heading into the rest of the round because I birdied the next hole. Up and down like the ones on (the first and third) keep your hopes up, (you) know that those dropped shots you don’t have to make an extra birdie to get where you want to be.”

Then when on top of his game, Vilips cashed in on both smart shot selection and great execution for back-to-back birdies on the 12th and 13th as he made his move.

“I hit two iron of the tees, wedges (to) the greens and made two 10-footers.

“Those holes are odd … drivers are leaving themselves too close to the green. I wanted to hit a wedge where I can generate enough spin to hit it close then roll a couple of putts in and that’s exactly what I did.”

He then capped his round with a near eagle on the 18th hole, ending with a 15cm tap-in birdie.

“I hit the drive and (the hole) was 490 (yards) and I hit it 370 (yards) off the tee. I had a 120-yard wedge in, (a) full wedge, (off a) downslope so it’s going to come in a little lower, going to bounce and spin up a little bit, and that’s exactly what I did.

“It was a good way to finish.”

The score gave Vilips a lot of wriggle room tomorrow for the second round before the cut is made to the top 64.

“If I get into trouble, (just) don’t do anything stupid. I don’t have to shoot another 66, I just have to shoot an even-par score and I’ll be happy.”

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