NEWPORT BEACH — It somehow seemed appropriate that a player named Duke was on top of the leaderboard for much of the opening round at Newport Beach Country Club on Friday, in a city where John “The Duke” Wayne lived the final years of his life and in the county where the airport is named after him.
Ken Duke, a journeyman pro in his second year on the PGA Tour Champions, rocketed to an 8-under-par start through the first 11 holes and admittedly began thinking about shooting “in the 50s” before finishing with a career-low, 8-under 63 in the first round of the 25th Hoag Classic.
Duke was the leader in the clubhouse until native Canadian David Morland IV, a Tuesday qualifier, caught and passed Duke with a birdie on the 15th hole en route to a 10-under 61, also his career-low as a pro. They are the unfamiliar names on the leaderboard, with defending Schwab Cup champion Scott McCarron – a perennial Hoag Classic contender – also lurking at 8-under.
This is Duke’s first visit to Newport Beach Country Club, not far from the waterfront home overlooking Newport Harbor where the more famous Duke – the Academy Award-winning actor – lived until his death in 1979 and where his yacht, The Wild Goose, is still moored.
“I didn’t know that, but it could be a good omen,” a smiling Duke said after Friday’s round, which was highlighted by a hole-out eagle from 190 yards on No. 5 and seven birdies. “Hope I can keep it up.”
Interestingly, John Wayne was also a member of the 552 Club, a group of volunteers and donors who helped support Hoag Hospital, which just happens to be the title sponsor of this long-running PGA Tour Champions event.
Morland’s route to the top on Friday was even more improbable than Duke’s, because he had to qualify for the event on Tuesday at Goose Creek Golf Club in Riverside County, where a brushfire forced the golfers to evacuate and shortened the qualifier to nine holes.
With five players tied for three spots, there was a card-off to determine which players advanced to Newport. Suffice to say, chaos reigned, because the players had to email in their scorecards before it was known who had qualified.
“It was the craziest thing,” Morland said after Friday’s round, which featured five birdies on both the front and back nines. “I’ve got video; we were on the 18th hole (at Goose Creek), I think I was 3-under for the day, and the (helicopter) was picking up water right in front of us and dropping it on the fire. The flames looked about 20 to 30 (feet high), and they said we had to evacuate the property. So we were sending our scorecards in by picture because they wouldn’t let us back on the property.
“I was tied with four guys at 2-under. Are they going to do a playoff? Are they going to do a scorecard playoff? So it was the most nerve-wracking (situation): Are you in or are you out?”
Morland was in, and he made the most of the opportunity on Friday. He made birdies in bunches: 1-2-3, 8-9, 11-12-13, then the 15th and 18th holes, both par-5s.
“It’s awesome. I love the golf course. It suits my eye,” said Morland, who finished second at European Qualifying School this winter to earn full status on that tour.
“It’s old-school golf. I’ve got to shape it off the tee. Dogleg right and the fairway slopes right to left, so you’ve got to hit a little cut off the tee. It’s just old-school golf.
“And I see Kenny Duke up on the board; he’s a good buddy of mine, and we’ve had a lot of fun over the years, so I’m looking forward to playing with him tomorrow.”
Duke is enjoying his first experience at Newport Beach Country Club, too. He shot a front-nine 29 highlighted by his hole-out on No. 5, rated the most difficult on the course.
“I was under a tree and between two roots; a perfect number, 190 yards,” Duke said. “I was just trying to hit a low 5-iron up there to that back pin and it came out perfectly, hit on the front and just kept going. I see everybody’s hands go up in the air (in the greenside gallery), and it went in.”
And when he birdied the 10th and 11th holes to get to 8 under, he started thinking about the iconic number: 59. “I have to be honest … I was thinking 50s,” he said.
“I’m not joking.”
It didn’t happen – the course record of 60 (Tom Purtzer in 2004, Nick Price in 2011, Duffy Waldorf in 2015) survived – but Duke is just “very happy to be where I am today.”
So is Morland, the other surprising name at the top of the leaderboard.
McCarron eagled the par-5 third. “It was a pretty solid round all day long,” said McCarron, a former UCLA player. “I drove it pretty well, I hit a couple real close shots like a couple inches on a couple holes. It’s always nice to have birdies where you’re just tapping in. Played the par-5s very well. Just one hiccup, a three-putt.” … Bernhard Langer, the 62-year-old German star coming off a victory last week in Tucson, Ariz., opened with a 70. He won the 2008 Hoag tournament. … Defending champion Kirk Triplett also shot 70.
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