The world's best young golfers are getting better - and Western New Yorkers are hanging right with them.
The 49th annual International Junior Masters at East Aurora Country Club had its lowest cut ever - by three strokes - after two rounds of stroke play, and seven area golfers were among the 32 advancing to match play. After Wednesday afternoon's first round of matches, the surviving 16 included four locals: Matt Thomas of Blasdell, Billy Hanes of Elma, Jeremy Wabick of Orchard Park and Jay Lindell of Lakewood.
"Our competition level is getting better and better and tournaments are getting more competitive and more people are playing around here," said Thomas, who advanced to the semifinals last year. "There's more practice time - people are realizing that practice time does pay off."
The oldest international junior golf invitational in North America, which has several alumni playing on the PGA Tour continues with this morning's second round of match play. Winners advance to this afternoon's quarterfinal round, with semifinals and finals on Friday.
There have not been more than two locals in the final 16 going back to 1988 according to records kept by The Buffalo News; tournament officials are uncertain of the last time it has happened in the tournament, which began in 1953 principally as an event for Western New York golfers.
Santiago Caicedo of Cali, Colombia, who took medalist honors in stroke play with an even-par 142, beat Benoit Gordon of Delson, Quebec, 2 and 1, to become one of five foreign players in the final 16. Caicedo has a plus-0.1 handicap, one of 10 entrants with plus handicaps in a field that averages 1.8.
Last year, only two locals qualified for match play and just Thomas advanced to the round of 16. Thomas went on to become the third Western New Yorker in three years to make the semifinals, but no local player had advanced that far for the eight years before that.
The last WNY player to win the event was Orchard Park's Tim Straub in 1984; since then, only two locals have made the finals.
Thomas carded five birdies and was 3-under through 15 holes for a 4 and 3 win over Adam Cohn of Binghamton.
"I didn't make that many mistakes," said Thomas. "I just waited for him to make the mistakes. He was actually playing even or 1-over-par, I just played a little better."
Thomas actually would have tied for medalist honors with Caicedo, but he played the wrong ball during Wednesday morning's round and finished at 144.
Hanes, who plays out of East Aurora CC, used his home-course advantage to knock off one of the best players in the tournament, Pat Patterson of Sea Island, Ga. Hanes, who won the consolation match play bracket last year, won 1-up. Hanes, starting on the 10th hole, birdied Nos. 14, 15 and 17 to take a 2-up lead he held on to for much of his final nine.
Wabick, an Orchard Park High School teammate of Thomas, won his match, 1-up, when he parred the 367-yard par 4 18th hole while Jonathan Pauli of St. John's, Mich., three-putted.
Lindell, who finished second in the state high school tournament last month, won his match, 3 and 2. He beat another local, Yorkshire's Kody Sprague, who plays out of East Aurora.
Today's draw doesn't have any of the four locals playing each other. "I'm glad for (the other locals), but I don't know what happens when I come up against them," a smiling Thomas said. "We're pretty good friends, so we'll keep that in mind."
Sprague will be joined by two other area players in today's consolation round of match play.
Another Orchard Park golfer - David Patronik - was a victim of a birdie binge by David May of Auburn, as May won, 3 and 2. James Miller of Silver Creek lost to Andrew DiBitetto of Rochester, 2-up.
Other locals who failed to make the cut of 152: Hamburg's Tim Boehringer, North Tonawanda's Brandon Dziura, Orchard Park's Corey Johnson, Lancaster's Mike Jarvis, East Aurora's Garrett Green, Lancaster's Mike Jarvis, Orchard Park's Corey Johnson, West Seneca's Sean Lindstrom, Amherst's Gabe Menjivar and Raman Luthra, Grand Island's Dan Misko, East Amherst's Jimmy Pizzutelli, Elma's Scott Reilly, Orchard Park's Jason Romanyshyn, West Seneca's Jeffrey Wolniewicz.