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GOLF: Mills feels at home with lead at West Penn Championship

by on July 08, 2014 10:40 AM

It’s good to be home for Jon Mills.

It’s good for a couple other guys, too.

Mills’ sizzling 9-under-par 62 in the second of two rounds Monday in the 110th West Penn Open Championship golf tournament at Indiana Country Club gave the professional the first-day lead, and three local golfers sat in the top four.

Mills, an Indiana resident and a former PGA Tour player who has provisional status on the Tour, finished the day at 9-under 133 through 36 holes.

He’s followed by IUP graduate Zack Kempa, who is tied with John Popeck three strokes back at 136. Don Erickson III, who has won 15 Indiana Country Club Invitationals, is fourth, at 137.

“It’s nice to play at the home golf course, get some confidence,” Mills said. “That’s what you’re looking for. Any chance you get to play a tournament and stay in your own bed at night, it’s an advantage.”

“Playing here for four years is a huge boost for me,” said Kempa, who was an NCAA Division II third-team All-American last season as a senior at IUP. “After four years, I’ve seen everything they can set up.”

In addition to Mills, Kempa and Erickson, ICC members Matt Holuta and Doug Gradwell made the cut for today’s third and final round.

Holuta, a 2014 Indiana High School graduate who will play for Rutgers University, shot rounds of 74 and 71 for a 3-over 145, good for a four-way tie for 25th place.

Gradwell, who has won 13 club championships at ICC, just got in with a 72-74 for a 4-over146 and a seven-way tie for 29th. The top 32 and ties play today.

“Home-course advantage means a lot,” Erickson said. “I knew the putts. I knew which way they would break and all that stuff.”

“I feel like I know the greens really well,” Mills said, “so, even though they get a little bumpy, you still pick your lines and trust your lines. For me, a lot of putts went in. I made some long putts, I made some short putts. It was one of those days, everything went well. … I hit the ball closer, but I also putted a lot better.”

It was a much-needed jolt for Mills, 36, who has had a successful pro career but has struggled lately getting it back on track. For the third straight year, he has provisional status on the Tour, the PGA Tour’s minor league, meaning he can’t get into many events.

He played full seasons on the PGA Tour in 2006 and 2008 and has 31 top-10 finishes and two victories in his Tour career.

A native of Oshawa, Ontario, Canada, Mills has played in a Canadian Tour event and a couple tournaments on Canadian mini-tours this season in addition to trying to qualify for events.

“It’s tough because you can’t get any rhythm,” Mills said. “You play one week, then you have two or three weeks off. It’s frustrating, but I’m still trying to get there and get back to the PGA Tour. I’m kind of pressed for time to do that, so this year is a big year for me to make some big strides to get back there.”

On Monday, Mills got a very welcome break. He plugged away for an even-par 71 on his first 18 of the day. In his second, everything clicked.

“I felt good going into the second round,” he said. “I started off birdying the first two holes. I can get comfortable here on this golf course. I’m starting to hit the ball well and hit a lot of birdie holes.

“I’ve been struggling the last few years. I’ve been working on things and I feel like I’m finally getting to the point where I’m comfortable on the golf course and executing shots that I know I can make but I haven’t been able to. It’s nice to get a low, competitive round.”

Another Canadian who found his way to Indiana, Kempa has been playing professionally on the Mandarin and Great Lakes tours, mini-tours in Canada, since playing in the NCAA tournament and graduating from IUP this spring.

“I’ve played well (on the mini-tours), OK golf, but everything’s starting to come together now that I’m back here,” Kempa said. “It’s nice to be back home.”

He shot individual rounds of 67 and 69, capping his day with a birdie on No. 10.

Erickson shot a 69-68, playing with one of the most interesting threesomes of the day. His partners were Bob Ford, the well-known Oakmont Country Club pro, and Roy Vucinich, a club pro from Moon who has played professionally.

“It’s probably the best I’ve played this year,” Erickson said. “I’ve been really struggling lately. I went to the range this morning. Things turned around for me a little bit. Playing with two great players, I fed off them a little bit and I putted really well today.

“That’s always neat to play with those3 guys. We’ve all been around playing in tournaments before together, so it was neat to be with them, because they’ve won their share.”

Thomas Steve, the grandson of Tom Steve of Indiana, just missed the cut at 147, tying for 36th place. Other local players were: Dan Braun, the ICC club pro, 42nd; Joseph Reed III, of Clarksburg, 42nd; Sean Sweithelm, an Indiana High School and IUP graduate, 42nd; Ryan Sikora, an IUP graduate and former ICC assistant, 50th; Todd Larrimer, ICC assistant pro, 55th; Ian Illig, of Homer City, 57th; and Brady Moran, an IUP player from Johnstown, 63rd.

The third round was set to start at 8 a.m. today. Kempa was paired with Erickson, and the two were to go off at 10:24. The final group, Mills and Popeck, went at 10:33.

Eli Nellis is a sports writer for The Indiana Gazette.
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