The first-round casting call filtered out 20 of the Times-Republican City Golf Tournament's most usual suspects.
And only five strokes separates them.
Two-time champion Tommy Craft is in the catbird seat after a 2-under-par 68 in Saturday's opening 18 holes at the American Legion Golf Course, but there's plenty of capable competitors aiming to pop him off his perch during today's final round of the 25th annual event.
T-R PHOTO BY ROSS THEDE
Mark Wolken, left, looks on as Darin Shipley drops his putt for birdie on the par-5 12th hole at the American Legion Golf Course during the first round of the Times-Republican City Golf Tournament on Saturday. Shipley carded a 1-under-par 69 for the day to tie for second place heading into today’s final 18 holes at Elmwood Country Club.
Twenty of the 22 men in the championship flight have been in the top flight before, none more prominent than Matt Steddom. The eight-time City Open champion last played in 2008 when he finished as runner-up to Craft.
Craft has won each of the last two T-R City Opens that were played in the same format as this summer's tournament, finishing on his home course at Elmwood Country Club. Sam Zoske, who of course is in the championship flight again, claimed the 2009 and 2011 titles when finishing out at the Legion.
Craft, Steddom, Zoske and Bill Benda have combined for 15 of the 25 tournament titles, and they're all in contention again. And with the tree-lined fairways at Elmwood awaiting, no lead - especially a one-stroke advantage - is big enough.
Clint Schneider shot a 1-under 69 in the morning session, Darin Shipley duplicated the score in the afternoon, and 19 more players carded between 70-73 to complete the largest championship flight since 2002.
Shipley's score included a 4-under-par 31 on his first nine holes - the back nine - while Troy Underhill's 72 featured a 34 on the front, the only under-par round on the front nine out of 140 golfers.
"I thought 66 would have been a pretty good number," said Steddom. "The greens were so soft."
Nearly an inch of rain that pelted the course in less than an hour during the morning session certainly played a factor. Play was delayed for roughly 45 minutes as golfers were called in before the storm hit and sent back out as the front passed.
But never have the area's golf courses needed a drink more, and the conditions remained favorable throughout the day. Though nobody knocked out a 66, the first-round scores surpassed last year's record-low opening 18 with 22 players shooting 73 or better. Eight players, including Zoske, tied for 15th place when the top 16 qualify.
Four players - Ben Wollam, Chad Moler, Benda and Steddom - are tied for fourth at 70.
"Ben and I were making birdies at the same time," said Steddom. "But I'm 50 now. These kids like Zoske and some of the younger guys, they can pop it out there pretty good."
Wollam is coming off the men's club championship at the Legion, when he carded a winning two-day total of 67-65-132 on July 21-22. The future Grand View University golfer got it going late after a slow start to his day on the links.
"It's all about for me whether I'm putting good or not," said Wollam. "I struggled coming out of the gate but I finished putting pretty well, I got a few birdies late to get back to even.
"I did have a lower score (than 70) in mind. I kind of got spoiled in the men's club, but all in all with how I started out today I'm pretty pleased with how I finished."
Pete Kenny and George Kueny share eighth place at 71. The five-way tie for 10th includes Chad Gould, Joel Chandler, Mark Wolken, Todd Weaver and Underhill at 72, and the eight-man championship flight caboose consists of Alex Ward, Brett Holland, Donnie Eicher, Matt Estabrook, Tim Rohde, Travis Stewart, Trent Davis and Zoske.
Only Kueny and Estabrook have never been a part of the championship flight before. Neither Eicher nor Weaver have had a chance at the crown since 2005.
Benda, who has played in every championship flight except for one since 1994, couldn't remember what year he last won a City Open title but knows he has a shot at his fourth today.
"No, I'm not playing enough, and that's part of it, but I'm not playing terrible," Benda said after finishing his even-par 70 with one of the day's two birdies on the par-3 18th. "I hit some good shots. I just tried not to shoot 100 today. I haven't played enough to know if I'm going to play good or not, so I just tried to be careful and not push myself beyond what I could do.
"If I can keep my head screwed on I should have a chance."
So should Steddom.
"The last couple weeks I actually have been playing pretty decent so to shoot even (par) I was actually a little disappointed today," he said. "I've played over there (Elmwood) several times now so I'm probably more comfortable with it than I used to be. Depends on where the pins are, the pins were tough out here.
"If I can keep it in play over there, because you've usually got short clubs coming in, I may be a little optimistic hopefully."
Craft totaled five birdies on the day, while Shipley's four included a chip-in for birdie on the 18th to round out his back-nine 31.
The 22-player championship flight will be broken into six groups for today's final 18 holes at Elmwood, starting at 12:42 p.m. The final foursome, made up of Moler, Schneider, Shipley and Craft, will tee off at 1:27 p.m.