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Gen Next on display as three rookie out of NCAA in co-lead at Beachlands Victoria Open

Round 3 goes Saturday at Uplands
Leader Thomas Ponder putts on his 18th green to finish the day at the Beachlands Victoria Open at Upland Golf Club. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

The cover of Thomas Ponder’s scorebook is coloured deep crimson and reads: “Roll Tide.”

Roll is exactly what the rookie pro out of the University of Alabama Crimson Tide did Friday at Uplands Golf Club in taking the share of the lead after two rounds of the Beachlands Victoria Open presented by the Times Colonist.

“You always dream of stuff like this but don’t always expect it,” said Ponder.

He said he went in with a “birdie mindset” and followed through by rolling in seven of them to record a 7-under 63 Friday to sit atop the two-round leaderboard at 13-under 127, tied with two other touted rookie pros, John Marshall Butler from the 2024 NCAA-champion Auburn Tigers and Dane Frederik Kjettrup from the NCAA runner-up Florida State Seminoles.

“It was all gas, no brake,” added Ponder, who qualified as a pro for the PGA Tour Americas by being medallist in a qualifying school tournament in the spring at Ocala, Florida, after graduating from Alabama.

“You have to assert dominance on the course … that you’re in control. But you still get nervous.”

Ponder described Uplands as a “tee-shot course, but also a second-shot course.” He pointed to his putter: “All my confidence stems from there.”

Ponder is part of a rookie pro golf class that is being described as the best in recent memory. It includes himself, Butler, Kjettrup and Neal Shipley, the latter out of the Ohio State Buckeyes, who went from low amateur this year in both the Masters in April at Augusta and U.S. Open last weekend at Pinehurst, to making the cut in his pro debut at Uplands with a two-round total of six-under 134.

Five years from now, on the PGA Tour, people may be looking back at this rookie pro class with the likes of Ponder, Kjettrup, Butler and Shipley while local fans could be pointing to the weekend they all played at Uplands.

The top-10 players this year on the PGA Tour Americas will earn cards into the 2025 Korn Ferry Tour, which is one step from the PGA Tour.

“There’s a lot of good players out here but nobody knows the future,” said a philosophical Ponder, who after his morning round, took in the Malahat Skywalk in the afternoon to decompress.

Kjettrup, closely following Denmark in the 2024 Euros, was a soccer player until golf took over. Like Ponder, he too was careful not to get ahead of himself with the tournament co-lead: “At the end of the day, it’s just two rounds of golf.”

Veteran Brandon Hoelzer, who at 30 is at the other end of the age scale this week at Uplands, was alone in fourth place at 12-under 128. He has made the cut four times in his career nine Korn Ferry tournaments as he looks to get back to the next level. He has the kind of insight that only comes with having been around more than a few courses as a pro, including missing the cuts in the last three PGA Tour Americas tournaments in South and Central America before the Tour headed to Victoria. Any of the hotshot rookie pros at Uplands this week would do well to listen and heed.

“The thing is to be at peace with what happens,” said ­Hoelzer.

“That [attitude] has allowed me to play good golf here and not try to force things to happen. I’ve rolled it good the last couple of days. If I keep it going, I will be solid.”

Top Canadians were Jeevan Sihota of Victoria and Joey Savoie of La Prairie, Que., the latter who played in the 2018 Canadian Open and the 2019 Lima Pan Am Games, with both tied for 27th at 6-under 134s in a group with Shipley.

“It was difficult at the start but I stayed patient,” said Sihota, who was even-par Friday for the longest time in the second round before catching fire down the stretch.

Gorge Vale’s Sihota, who turned down numerous full-ride NCAA scholarship offers to instead turn pro right after completing home-school Grade 12, is only 20 and a part of the Gen Next on display at Uplands: “I grew up playing against a lot of these guys in junior golf and it’s going to be a great generation. It’s going to take a very low score to win this this weekend, that’s for sure.”

The cut was 4-under with the top 60 golfers plus ties moving on to the final rounds today and Sunday at Uplands. The winner of the $225,000 US Beachlands Victoria Open will pocket $40,000 US and move one step closer to fulfilling his dream of bigger things.

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