Ron Agostini

Big-time golfers face off at Scratch Players

Rick Kulacz hasn't been home since June 1, and that's a long road trip when you're from Perth, Australia.

"I'm not as homesick as I was last year," he said.

Kulacz, 22, typifies the 20-somethings who have traveled golf's marathon road to Del Rio Country Club this week for the eighth Scratch Players Championship. They represent 12 countries and 19 states and, for the most part, they've arrived with a full laundry bag.

Which means they don't mind that about half of the original field of 83 is being housed by Del Rio members. They're here, however, because they 1) love golf, 2) relish the competition and 3) chase a Tiger Woods-sized dream.

"The college guys have to keep their games up throughout the summer. You can't take a break," Colorado State junior Zen Brown said. "When you love to play, you have the drive to keep playing in tournaments and keep getting better to work toward the future."

Scanning the practice range, the golf bags cover everyone from BYU to Stanford to Northwestern to UNLV and other collegiate addresses. The Scratch Players reaches deeper into golf's underbelly, however, than just collegians on scholarships. In fact, it cuts across all ages, borders and social status.

All it demands is that you possess some serious game.

Consider the leaderboard at the tournament's halfway point. It's topped by two members of the reigning NCAA-champion Stanford Cardinal — senior and second-team All-American Rob Grube (67-67 — 134), and incoming freshman Sihwan Kim (68-66 — 134).

Then there's Kulacz (69-66 — 135), the world's ninth-ranked amateur, and Cal senior Michael Jensen of Los Altos (69-68 — 137). Consider the rainbow of golf talent at 4-under 138: 17-year-old Victor Dubuisson, France's top junior; Jay Bayron, who was raised dirt poor in the Philippines; Valley Springs resident Kevin Wentworth (no relation to the former PGA Tour pro from Manteca); Northwestern senior Kyle Moore; Mu Hu, a teenager from China; and UCLA senior Lucas Lee.

Yes, scorecards don't ask for pedigree or a birth certificate, only a number. Bayron rallied into contention with an afternoon 65, Tuesday's best round. Del Rio members Dave Halvorson, 47, and Jeff Burda, 54, leaned hard on local knowledge to hang with the younger generation.

Burda, the oldest player in the field, opened with a 68 but faded to 76. Halvorson (69-74 — 143) started fast and later recovered from a slow start during his second round.

"That was good golf for me," the Modesto car-dealership president said. "My goal is to just be around on Thursday."

The field was sliced from 83 to 71 players at 8-over 150. After today's third round, another cut will be made to the low 30 and ties for Thursday's closing 18 holes.

If the Scratch Players lacks the regal bearing of the U.S. Amateur and amateur golf's so-called "Big Four" — the Sunnehanna, Western, Porter Cup and Northeast Amateur — it's barely a notch below in quality.

More important, it salutes golf's wide wingspan.

SCRATCH NOTES — Welshman Rhys Davies, the 2006 champ, didn't defend his title because he's practicing for the Walker Cup matches next month at Royal County Down, Northern Ireland. ... Jason Kang, one of four members of the UCLA team at Del Rio, led after his morning 66 but labored home with a 75. "Hit only three fairways in the afternoon," Kang said. ... Dubuisson accented his 66 by nearly holing his second shot at Del Rio's 572-yard sixth (Bluff nine) to set up an eagle. ... Par for the tournament was adjusted to 71 after the short par-5 seventh on the Oak nine was reduced to a par 4. ... Leaders tee off today at 8:50 a.m.

THE SHAG BAG — The Silva family, one of Modesto's first families of golf, is enjoying a new generation of players. Stockton's Layney Silva, 12, whose grandfather was the late pro LeRoy Silva, took part in the U.S. Kids Junior World Championships last month in Pinehurst, N.C. She also placed third with partner Aldora Lucchesi, 81, LeRoy's sister, at the Del Rio Women's Invitational. Then, Steven Silva, whose grandfather was the former Fort Washington CC (Fresno) pro Bob Silva, shot a 73 and won the Oakdale CC Junior Classic. ... Steve Mona's career has shot upward since his tenure 30 years ago as a newspaper golf reporter in the Bay Area. He's the CEO of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America, and he'll serve as keynote speaker at a regional meeting Monday at Saddle Creek near Copperopolis.

Bee sports columnist Ron Agostini can be reached at ragostini@modbee.com or 578-2302.

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