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Booth Tears Up Fairways With 63; Combs Fires 64 Pro Sparked By Double-Eagle On 3; Several Lead Local Charge At Lilac

First there was the lipped-out birdie putt on No. 1.

Then there was the 6-foot birdie putt on No. 2 that stopped 6 inches short.

Finally, it was a lost ball on No. 3.

But Mike Booth found the ball - in the hole - and the double-eagle started the Southern Californian on the way to a 63 and a one-shot lead after Thursday’s rain-interrupted first round of the Washington Trust Bank Lilac Invitational golf tournament at The Fairways.

A 1-hour, 40-minute rain delay left six groups on the course, barely allowing Mike Combs of the Tri-Cities to finish with a 64 that included a back-nine 31 in near-darkness.

“I didn’t want to stop and be out here at 6 in the morning,” said Combs, whose resume includes a 1991 Masters appearance thanks to his 1990 Publinx title. “I don’t want to say (darkness) helped, but it really makes you focus on yardage. … That’s what you’re supposed to do, anyway.”

Booth, who teed off first at 6:30 a.m., was three strokes ahead of a pair of employees of The Fairways, Cheney amateur Todd Pence and pro Craig Gronning. At five-under-par 67 was Dan Koesters of Moscow, Idaho, and at 68 were five professionals, including sixtime champion Chris Mitchell of Spokane, and amateur John Skusek. Defending champ Gary Lindeblad of Spokane shot a 2-under-par 70.

“I was thinking, ‘Oh, no. Here we go,”’ Booth said of his early near-misses.

He summed up his round by saying, “I scored well, but I didn’t putt well. I had it 10 feet all day and didn’t make them.”

After his 235-yard 4-wood found the cup on the 537-yard par-5 third hole, Booth put a 7-iron 5 feet away on the 145-yard fourth for a birdie. On the 525-yard par-5 fifth, he hit a 2-iron to 2 feet for an eagle, then made four pars, making the turn in 30.

On No. 10, he made a 5-foot birdie putt, then cut the corner on the 327-yard 11th, driving the green and two-putting for birdie. He three-putted from 15 feet for par on No. 12 and birdied 14 before parring in.

“I was pretty nervous,” the flashy and talkative Booth admitted. “It wasn’t until I made the double-eagle (that he relaxed). Once I got to 3 under, it was pretty easy to go on cruise control.”

The nerves came from a curious combination of factors. While enjoying his visit last year, Booth promised to put in some sponsor money through Vi-Cal, his company. Then he fell apart in the third round. A week after the tournament, Booth’s troubles were compounded when he was arrested in Spokane for allegedly driving a car without permission.

The charge was dropped within a week, but not before Lindeblad, the man who helped make Booth choke, became a fast friend after sending an attorney to help bail Booth out of jail.

The memory of the choke - Booth’s word - was another reason for the firsttee jitters.

Paired with Lindeblad for last year’s third round, Booth played himself out of contention.

“The truth of the matter is, Gary Lindeblad made me choke,” he said. “I wanted to go out there and beat him. When I got to the first tee, my heart was beating 150. He’s so good. He made everything.”

Booth stayed an extra week in Spokane, shooting a 63 with Joe Durgan the day after the tournament. Booth’s arrest came that Friday. As Booth told it, the dealer from which he had just purchased a Ferrari sold Booth’s trade-ins without paying them off.

Despite the reasons not to return to Spokane, Booth did, and his company came through with $6,000, he said, making it the No. 2 sponsor.

“I just wanted to come back,” said Booth, 33. “California has a bad reputation up here. If I don’t come back, I just confirm that.”

Booth was as cautious as his gregarious personality would allow, while golfers whispered about his 63.

“I think if the wind isn’t blowing tomorrow, somebody is going to shoot a 63,” he said. “The greens are rolling and the fairways are set up. I have a lot to do; there are three rounds left.”

Mitchell agreed.

“I don’t think (68) is a bad opening score,” the head pro at Sundance said. “I don’t think too much about (the 63) until maybe Saturday. If you’re way back Saturday, you have to take some chances.”

Mitchell was satisfied with his round, but three-putted Nos. 12 and 17, the former a 501-yard par-5 for a “par that seems like you had a bogey.”

Lindeblad had the same problem with three three-putts.

“I felt like I gave away a lot of shots,” the Indian Canyon pro said. “But I should be happy, I haven’t been playing much the last couple of months. I played good the first 12 holes, really good, but I got frustrated because I couldn’t get anything going and let it get away.”

Pence wasn’t the least bit unhappy after matching his best-ever competitive round despite parring the easy par 5s on the back side, “which are both usually automatic birdies.”

In fact, two years ago Pence was the first-round leader after a 66.

“I made a lot of good selections,” the Brigham Young All-American and Western Athletic Conference champion said. “I hit all 18 greens. I started off hitting the ball solid and didn’t do anything special. I put myself in good position all the time and I was able to capitalize.”

The 22-year-old Pence, who will be a fifth-year senior at BYU, works at The Fairways and envisions making the Lilac his first professional tournament next year.

“I’ve been playing quite a bit,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve shot over par since I’ve been back from school.”

Combs, meanwhile, seemed unfazed despite teeing off well after Booth’s 63 had been posted. “It’s a 72-hole tournament,” Combs said. “It does let you know there are some birdies out there. You always know at The Fairways, (low scores) are possible. You just have to gear up and get ready.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: LEADERBOARD Leaders after Thursday’s first round of the Lilac Invitational at The Fairways, 6,398-yard par 72: Mike Booth 30-33-63 Michael Combs 33-31-64 a-Todd Pence 32-34-66 Craig Gronning 34-32-66 Dan Koesters 33-34-67 Jim Bob Coleman 36-32-68 John DeLong 35-33-68 Chris Mitchell 33-35-68 Paul Regali 35-33-68 Eric Riestand 35-33-68 a-John Skusek 34-34-68

This sidebar appeared with the story: LEADERBOARD Leaders after Thursday’s first round of the Lilac Invitational at The Fairways, 6,398-yard par 72: Mike Booth 30-33-63 Michael Combs 33-31-64 a-Todd Pence 32-34-66 Craig Gronning 34-32-66 Dan Koesters 33-34-67 Jim Bob Coleman 36-32-68 John DeLong 35-33-68 Chris Mitchell 33-35-68 Paul Regali 35-33-68 Eric Riestand 35-33-68 a-John Skusek 34-34-68

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