Hilton Head's Andrew Orischak among four tied for Players Amateur lead

sfastenau@beaufortgazette.comJuly 11, 2014 

Andrew Orischak remembers well his visits to the Players Amateur growing up.

It hasn't been that long.

The 15-year-old, the youngest in the field this week at Berkeley Hall's South course for one of the country's premier amateur events, fired a 4-under-par 68 on Thursday to open with a share of the lead.

The smiling, soon-to-be sophomore at Hilton Head Island High School was first off in the morning and took advantage of the comfortable pace and smooth greens. He closed with a birdie on the difficult par-4 18th -- hitting a drive and 9 iron to 10 feet.

Orischak was medalist at U.S. Open local qualifying earlier this year at his home Long Cove Club. He got in the Players Am on a local exemption and is teeing it with some of the country's top college players and a strong international contingent.

He shares the lead with University of South Carolina golfer Matthew NeSmith, New Zealander Tae Koh and Aussie Geoff Drakeford.

Defending champion Hunter Stewart is among those a shot back after a 3-under 69.

"Coming in playing in the practice round -- (Stanford's) Maverick McNealy, (Florida's) J.D. Tomlinson, some of the established college players -- at first it's a little out of my comfort zone, a little intimidating almost," said Orischak, who is believed to be the youngest to play in the event. "But you start playing and you realize it's just golf; it's just you and the course. You're not playing against the field, you're just playing the golf course."

Orischak is among seven with local ties playing this week. Of those, Orischak was the only to finish under par.

Afternoon storms delayed play about 45 minutes with five groups still on the course. More storms are expected throughout the weekend.

NeSmith, a past Junior Heritage champion, is coming off a strong showing at U.S. Amateur qualifying at Columbia Country Club, where he was medalist.

The North Augusta native shot a second-round 64 in Columbia to finish 12 under and three shots clear of Gamecocks teammate Will Murphy. He said his game is in a good place and, in this his fourth Players Am, hopes he is ready for a breakthrough.

"I love this place," NeSmith said. "I'm in my home state. I'm in my element."

Tae Koh, who won the Australian Amateur earlier this year, made four birdies and no bogeys Thursday. His trip began in Great Britain, and he will play a U.S. Amateur qualifier and the Western Amateur before returning home and turning professional.

Drakeford, playing in his third Players Am, said the first-round pin positions were tougher than he expected early in the week. But he solved them.

He made four consecutive birdies on the front nine and birdied five of six holes during the stretch.

"I was hitting it well, so I've just got to make the most of it while I can," said Drakeford, who plans to try European Tour qualifying school in the fall.

Orischak isn't close to turning professional or attending college but is managing his game like a more seasoned player.

He said the bulk of his work with instructor Tim Cooke has been on his short game and putting, trying to strengthen his reads and feel on the greens.

"I've broken down putting into every little piece it could be," Orischak said. "Probably too much at times."

Orischak thinks his driving could be an advantage at Berkeley Hall, where accuracy is key to avoid the tricky rough and where his distance sets him apart.

There is plenty of golf left for Orischak, who fired a competitive course-record 65 in May to medalist at Long Cove's U.S. Open local qualifier. He played Berkeley Hall three times before Thursday's first round.

Orischak learned at the beginning of the summer he had received an exemption.

"That was just a thrill for me," he said.

Follow assistant sports editor Stephen Fastenau at twitter.com/IPBG_Stephen.

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