By Paul Kenyon
NEWPORT _ The golf season is off to a great start for Bobby Leopold and it got even better on Tuesday.
The two-time Rhode Island Amateur champion advanced through local qualifying in U.S. Open competition by recording a 1-under-par 69 at Newport Country Club. That tied him for medalist honors and earned him one of the five available berths, from an 85 player field, in next month’s sectionals, the final step before this year’s Open at Erin Hills, Wisc.
Amateurs dominated the day, talking all five spots. URI alum David Spitz began with three straight birdies and tied Leopold with a 69. Former NHL goaltender Mike Dunham, who now plays out of Concord, Mass., shot 70, as did Alex Manner of Rocky Hill, Ct., and Steve Dilisio of Swampscott, Mass., took the final spot with a 71.
While most players are just now getting their game into shape _ Tuesday was the best weather day yet this year, a gloriously sunny day in the 70s at the historic course near the ocean _ Leopold already is piling up success. Last week, he finished second to Brad Valois in the RIGA’s Burke Memorial Championship.
What’s more, he and his brother-in-law, Tyler Cooke (who shot a 72 Tuesday) have qualified for the USGA Four-Ball Championship next week at Pinehurst, N.C. Before that, they will compete in the RIGA Four-Ball at Kirkbrae where they will try to become the first team ever to win that event three years in a row.
“We haven’t had a chance to play or practice very much yet, but it’s going pretty good,’’ Leopold said.
The insurance man went out in 3-under 32 and was not totally happy only because he took three from the fringe on the 18th, after his approach spun back off the green, for bogey. Leopold loved the break the players received with the weather. If the event had been held on Monday, when many other qualifying rounds were held around the country, conditions would have been much more unpleasant. It was about 25 degrees cooler, rainy and very windy.
``I don’t know if we would have been able to play Monday,’’ said Bob Ward, the RIGA director. ``There was water everywhere.’’
Leopold spoke about how the course was still wet on Tuesday, making it play long. It played even longer because of recent changes in the course, which was a founding member of the USGA.
``I haven’t played here since the Burke tournament a couple years ago,’’ Leopold said. ``They’ve put in new tees and made a lot of changes. It plays a lot longer.’’
It was announced last month that Newport will host the 2020 US Senior Open. The USGA already has begun making recommendations for the layout, where Tiger Woods won a US Amateur and Annika Sorenstam a women’s Open.
``They’re always working on some changes here,’’ said Barry Westall, the club pro. ``They did some work on five and six last year.’’
As it is, the course now can be extended over 7,000-yards and, ``There’s room for even more,’’ Westall said. There likely will not be much add added.
``I don’t think the USGA wants it to play much over 7,000 yards,’’ Westall said.
The course remains a huge draw. The participants Tuesday included Jammie Lett, a pro from Rainbow City, Ala.
``I’ve visited here with my family. I love Newport,’’ Lett said. ``I’ve been looking in through the hedges to see this place the last few years. When I saw it on the list (of qualifying sites) I said, `That’s where I’m going.’ ’’
He missed a short putt on 18 and three-putted 17 to shoot 73 and miss a playoff for the alternate spots by one stroke, but he was not unhappy.
``It was worth it,’’ he said of the trip to play here.’’
Tyler Cooke(Warwick, RI) was the first alternate, making par on the third playoff hole. Jonathan Pannone earned the second alternate spot by making a birdie on the eighth playoff hole.