LEWISTON – The top-ranked amateur in the field.
The rising star from Rochester.
The hottest player in amateur golf.
Porter Cup tournament director Steve Denn probably couldn’t have dreamed up a better final group than that.
Denny McCarthy, Gavin Hall and Carter Jenkins made that a reality Friday by playing their way into a three-way tie for the lead at the 57th Porter Cup at Niagara Falls Country Club.
“I’m in good position for tomorrow,” said Hall, a 20-year-old from Pittsford, after carding a round of 1-under-par 69. “It’ll be fun to be in that last group. I’m excited to be with Denny. He’s a great player. Denny loves this tournament and so do I. I’m really happy we’re both playing well, along with Carter. He’s a great player, too.
“It’s pretty amazing to see the support for amateur golf out here. You don’t see this every week.”
All three players are at 9-under 201 through 54 holes. Virginia Tech graduate Trevor Cone is one back at 8-under 202. Nobody else is within five shots of the lead.
Hall once again got off to a good start Friday, making birdies on the second and third holes to reach 10-under. He gave a shot back with a bogey on the par-3 fourth hole, then parred his way through No. 10.
A birdie on the par-4 11th hole got him back to 10 under, where he stayed until the short, par-4 15th hole. Even into a stiff wind, the hole is reachable from the tee for pretty much every player in the field.
With an eagle in mind, Hall hit driver, but the ball leaked left and kicked out of bounds – a potentially disastrous mistake.
“I tried to get cute with it,” Hall said. “Tried to make a two. I’ll focus a little harder on that tee box tomorrow.”
The damage was mitigated, however, as Hall was able to save bogey on the hole. His 3-wood from the tee found a green-side bunker, from which he was able to get up and down.
“That was good,” he said, “but I didn’t make enough putts on the back nine. I feel like I played the front nine pretty solid, then the back nine was tough with all that wind. So I was happy with the way I grinded and finished under par.”
While Hall couldn’t get much going coming in, McCarthy gave himself a talking to early in his back nine to get things going.
“Today I really kept myself in it,” he said. “It was a huge day for me. I did not play well at all on the front nine – didn’t hit it well at all and kept it together to shoot even. As the wind picked up on the back nine, I knew it was going to play tougher. I elevated my game a little bit, I knew I had to grind bringing it to the house and played a great back nine to shoot 3-under and be right there at the top.”
A 6-foot par save on the par-5 11th hole was the spark for McCarthy.
“After that, it was kind of, ‘come on, let’s get it going a little bit,’ he said.
A 12-foot birdie on the par-5 12th hole followed, then McCarthy laced a drive down the middle of the fairway on the par-5 13th. With the tees moved up, that allowed him to get his second shot just in front of the green, which led to an easy up-and-down birdie.
Another birdie followed on the 15th, when McCarthy chose to lay up with a 3-wood to the middle of the fairway, leaving just an easy wedge to a couple feet for a kick-in birdie.
“It doesn’t suit my eye for driver,” he said. “I knew I couldn’t get there with 3-wood. I probably could have with driver, but to me, the risk wasn’t worth it. … That’s kind of been my strategy on that hole in years past, and it’s worked out for me, so I’ll take the same mindset into tomorrow. I’m in a good spot and ready to go.”
McCarthy kept his momentum going with a 20-foot par save on the difficult par-3 16th. With the wind swirling off the Niagara Escarpment, he was unsure of his club on the tee and wound up missing the green right.
“I felt like I had too much club and I just didn’t make a committed swing,” he said. “Left it in a terrible spot, took my medicine with a chip to hit it to 20 feet and made a great 20-footer for par. That was huge to keep the momentum going.”
McCarthy, who is playing in his fifth Porter Cup, was the pre-tournament favorite. At No. 8 in the Scratch Players World Amateur Rankings, he’s set to turn pro this fall.
“Obviously I’m in a good spot, tied for the lead,” said McCarthy, who twice before has been runner-up. “That’s all you can ask for, a chance going into the last day. I’ve done that here before. I’m a little bit more experienced now, so I think I know what it’s going to take tomorrow. “
Slipping on the winner’s green jacket would be a sweet way to wind down an amateur career, but the 22-year-old from Rockville, Md., said he’s not feeling any pressure.
“I think I’ll sleep fine,” he said. “The people out here are just great. They make it so much easier on us, the players, to just come out and relax and have fun. That’s what I’ve done the last five years. The camaraderie is just so great, so I don’t think there’s going to be any added pressure.
“I’m pretty good buddies with Gavin, so we’ll have a great time tomorrow.”
Of course, it’s not just a two-man competition. Jenkins made sure of that by shooting a round of 2-under 68 Friday.
The 20-year-old junior at the University of North Carolina reached 10-under when he rammed home a long birdie putt on the par-3 14th hole, but then dropped his only shot of the round on the par-3 16th with a three-putt.
“Anything under par was a pretty good score today,” he said. “I didn’t putt my best, but gave myself some opportunities and that’s what you have to do out here.”
Denn called Jenkins, who is believed to be the first player to hold the Carolinas Amateur and North Carolina Men’s Amateur championships jointly, one of the hottest amateur players in the country coming into this week.
“I’ve been in a nice flow the past few months,” he said. “I’m limiting my mistakes pretty well right now. When putts drop, I can shoot 65 like I did in the second round. When they don’t, I play like I did today.”
The final group is scheduled to tee off at 12:35 p.m. Saturday.