Cooke Takes Opening-Round Lead in Senior PGA Professional Championship

Stan Cooke of Homosassa, Fla., doesn't believe in spending much time on the practice range. But the 53-year-old PGA general manager and director of golf at Ocala (Fla.) National Golf Club did just fine in the first round of the 53-year-old PGA general manager and director of golf at Ocala (Fla.) National Golf Club on Tuesday afternoon at PGA Golf Club in Port St. Lucie, Fla.

Cooke fired birdies and an eagle en route to a 7-under-par 65 and a two-stroke lead in one of the PGA of America's majors for its club and teaching professional members. Making his third appearance, Cooke's round was highlighted by a 6-under-par 30 on the back nine of the Wanamaker Course.

Also being used for the tournament is the neighboring Ryder Course. Both are par-72s.

He stands two strokes ahead of Frank Esposito Jr. of Monroe Township, N.J., and Rob Gibbons of Molalla, Ore., who each shot 67. Championship rookie Todd McCorkle of Birmingham, Ala., headed a group at 68 that also included Gene Fieger of Naples, Fla., Carl Cooper of Humble, Texas, and Doug Rohrbaugh of Carbondale, Colo.

Defending champion Jim Woodward of Edmond, Okla., opened with 77.

The field of 264 players representing 43 states had waited 187 days to get in a round after being washed out last October in northern Virginia. "It was a long time coming," said Cooke. "I don't believe much in practicing on the range. I try to play my way into being able to hit shots. So, every other day, I schedule 18 holes late in the day somewhere in Ocala trying to see different courses and different shots and visualize those shots."

The last time Cooke remembered playing as well was he did Tuesday was in the final round of the 1988 Queen Mary Classic in Long Beach, Calif., where he posted a 65.

On a gusty afternoon in South Florida, Cooke overcame a bogey on the par-3 fourth, when he failed to get up and down from a greenside bunker. He bounced back with a chip-in for birdie at the par-4 fifth, and then birdied Nos. 9, 10, 13, 14 and 18. He eagled the 508-yard, par-5 16th after nailing a 3-hybrid, 208-yard approach shot to within 15 feet of the flag.

"I lit up the back nine and I managed the course well. I hit a few wayward shots that I got away with out there," added Cooke. "Then, the putter started clicking and I got out of the way of myself and shot 30."

Esposito, 50, applied his own course knowledge on the adjoining Ryder Course, where he has played well over the past several years, including capturing the 2010 PGA Stroke Play Championship. Esposito, the PGA head professional at Brooklake Country Club in Florham Park, N.J., had seven birdies and two bogeys.

"It was a little windy and there were some tough pins," said Esposito. "I have played so many times here in the winter that I get used to it. This is normal for Florida. It was firm and fast. I seem to play well on this golf course for some reason."

Rod Nuckolls of Wichita, Kan., 57, posted a 69 under the most unlikely circumstances. He was 2-over par through 14 holes before kicking his game in gear. He played the final four holes in 5-under, posting three birdies and holing out from 67 yards for an eagle on the 16th.

The shot of the day was by Robert Burk of Valdosta, Ga., who aced the 171-yard, par-3 sixth hole on the Wanamaker Course. Burk, PGA head professional at Stone Creek Golf Club in Valdosta, used a 6-iron.

The Southworth Senior PGA Professional National Championship features a $285,000 total purse. The low 70 scorers and ties after Wednesday's second round advance to the weekend's final 36 holes at the Wanamaker Course.

The low 35 finishers earn a berth in the 75th Senior PGA Championship, May 22-25, at Harbor Shores in Benton Harbor, Mich.

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